Civic and Community Engagement Fair Broadens Focus, Connects Student Interests with Action

The Civic and Community Engagement Fair is an annual event that inspires students to discover new ways to get involved, serve, and engage on campus and in the St. Louis region. Now in its 20th year, it provides a platform for student organizations to promote their work and to connect with peers who share the same interests and values. A wide variety of student groups participated in the fair, including community service groups such as Relay for Life and Girls Who Code, social action groups like Green Action and Liberty in North Korea, and political groups such as College Democrats and Young Americans for Liberty. Held on the South 40, home to the majority of first- and second-year students, tables full of balloons, candy, and informational materials surrounded the Clocktower and lined the sidewalks. Seventy-five student groups hosted tables, and their leaders reported between 30 and 50 new sign-ups per group. The fair is not just an opportunity for groups to table but a full-blown celebration of community and civic engagement, complete with music, snow cones, and Insomnia cookies. Over 800 students attended the fair, and 500 Insomnia cookies were given away.

This year, the former Community Service Fair broadened its scope to include social action and political groups in addition to community service groups. Mike Jones, Student Engagement and Service Manager at the Gephardt Institute, planned and coordinated the event. He mentioned that the fair’s widened focus was motivated by a desire to facilitate “connections between groups that may not have previously seen themselves as platforms for civic engagement.” Mike continued, “More students are saying, ‘why can’t this be an aspect of civic engagement?’ Social action groups are seeing themselves as part of the direction that civic engagement is going, and we’re interested in helping groups come to the table together.” The change has been affirmed by an overwhelmingly positive student response.

The fair catalyzed engagement with the Gephardt Institute from a new group of stakeholders that has continued beyond the event itself. Shortly after the fair, the institute hosted a dinner for student leaders, and a wider spectrum of student groups participated, including social action groups that had not previously been aware of the support available to them through the institute, such as advising, marketing, and student leader training. Because of the fair, new groups came in contact with the institute for the first time, and more students now see the institute as a resource for their group. Mike said, “When we expand our programs, we hope that more students feel included and learn as a result.”

Anand Chukka ’19, co-president of GlobeMed, commented on the fair’s impact for his organization in practical terms: “One thing I really appreciated was the Gephardt Institute providing candy and balloons to each group—a lot of times executive members have to bear those costs, which is not necessarily equitable for campus leadership.” Anaya Johnson ’20 tabled for both the Black Pre-Law Association (BPLA) and for Teaching Racial Understanding Through Honesty (TRUTH). She emphasized the fair’s facilitation of network-building based on shared values, noting, “The fair provided an easy way to connect with the community who may still live on the South 40 but also with those still in search of a family or group with the same passions.” Alicia Zhang ’19 is the Internal Communications Director for Out of the Blue. She remarked on the importance of the fair for continuing to involve new participants in her organization. She said, “The fair is extremely important because it drives students who might be interested in our cause—that is, improving literacy among elementary school children—to us, helping to grow our group and improve our work so that, even as members leave us after graduating, there will always be inspired and motivated students to take their places.”

The fair is one of the first instances in which first-year students are introduced to opportunities for civic and community engagement. It serves as a crucial initial step to aligning student interests and values with action and sustained engagement. With an eye to the future of the Civic and Community Engagement Fair and initiatives like it, Mike said, “We look forward to where it takes us in terms of connecting students to their passions.”