The Common Good
September/October 2009

How to ... Find a Social Justice College

by Elizabeth Palmberg | September/October 2009

Because there are so many different facets of social justice, there’s no one formula for picking a school that values it.

Because there are so many different facets of social justice, there’s no one formula for picking a school that values it. “I’m really interested in Latin America, so I focused on international issues,” says current undergraduate Luke Walsh-Mellett, who also “looked at mostly small schools, because they have more of a reputation for being socially aware.”

Here’s a road map for decision-making that starts the summer before you plan to apply:

Consider your goals (late summer). Is it most important to you to have classroom learning about social justice issues? To have your tuition go to an institution that is living out justice values? To be part of a community of students who share your faith and/or social values? Alternatively, to be part of a community—secular or Christian—that needs to hear your witness about the connections between faith and justice?

Ask around (early fall). Walsh-Mellett talked to friends and neighbors a few years older than himself about where they’d gone; he also visited a number of them at their schools and stayed overnight. “Talk to people about what they’re doing, what they’re studying” to get “a sense of what the school is about,” he advises.

Research student activism (fall). Look at the campus newspaper and the school’s student activities Web site to see what active student groups exist. Is there a chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, Amnesty International, or Pax Christi?

To assess institutional commitment to volunteerism, check out the percentage of federal work-study dollars (if it gets any) the college devotes to community service (www.learnandserve.gov/for_organizations/highered/fws.asp).

Look into justice on campus (fall). Does a school pay janitors a living wage? Does it source cafeteria food locally? Has it “greened” any buildings? To see some schools taking steps to reduce and recycle waste, check last year’s RecycleMania competition results and the EPA’s WaterWise campus program.

Check the catalog (fall). Read class descriptions; consider skimming courses even outside your intended major. Does the phrase “human rights” show up in economics classes, as well as history and political science ones? Are there any courses in restorative justice, civil rights history, or the philosophy of nonviolence—and are they offered most years?

Pray (continually). Decision-making styles vary—some people focus on lists of pros and cons, others bring gut feeling into play. But it’s always a good idea to ask God for guidance.

Apply (October-January). Check individual schools for guidelines; allow enough time for recommendations and other materials to arrive.

Commit (usually by May 1). Send in your acceptance and deposit.

Bottom Line. No school is perfect, and the variety of information you have to weigh can seem overwhelming, but there are many good choices out there! Walsh-Mellett ended up deciding on Guilford College, a liberal arts college from the Quaker tradition. For him, in addition to social justice, “the biggest factor ended up being the money.” Fortunately, “those two factors ended up coinciding for me.”

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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