Community Connect
Office of the Vice President for Community Services

Q&A: Engaging Honors Students

By Carolina Canizales

Inaugurating a new civic engagement program, giving students the tools to become multidimensional leaders and embodying the values of active citizenry are a few of the highlights discussed in a conversation with Sean Kelly, incoming dean of the Honors College at UTSA. In the past, Kelly spearheaded the development of experience-based programs at Florida Gulf Coast University. He now plans to expand this model by piloting City Semester in the honors program and expanding service learning opportunities across all college departments.

Kelly and Rowdy participate in the UTSA annual 5K Diploma Dash. Photo courtesy of Tracy Day.

Kelly and Rowdy participate in the UTSA annual 5K Diploma Dash. Photo courtesy of Tracy Day.

Tell us about what influenced you over the years to be civically engaged. First, I grew up in a community that was diverse, multiracial and very cultural.
I realized that when it came to my education, a huge number of people helped me become who I am today. It was in this moment when I began to recognize the relationship between being educated for myself versus educating myself to give back to my community. We, as citizens, are not the sole owners of our education, or even our careers. Education is a public good and to be successful at it, you have got to be in a relationship with family and friends, institutions, taxpayers and other community members. Secondly, in 2002 I participated in the American Democracy Project. Through this work, I learned that citizenship is a skill set that takes practice. We cannot teach our students to be civically engaged just through regular course work. It takes hands-on learning experiences to become an active citizen.

Why should community engagement be a priority for the Honors College?
The Honors College has an outstanding group of elite academics. We have the cum laude students. We know students can volunteer, but can they be leaders in their communities and create opportunities for others? Can they continue to excel in research, but also create funding opportunities for their projects? Service learning is a great challenge for this college. Faculty and staff will have to team up to create a student-life experience that is fun and academically competitive, but one that also empowers students to be multidimensional leaders.

Honors students have demanding schedules, what will you do to inspire them to take this challenge and be multidimensional?
I will tell our students what they already know-you are highly educated but you are also a community member. This means that they will grow up to be part of a community somewhere. Some will become parents, others will be advocating for marginalized communities, others will go into public service or higher education. Any career path they choose will be connected to a community, and all that they do will not be just for themselves but will impact others. Their degrees are no longer about hard classes and awards, but about being rooted in communities they will actively choose to be a part of everyday.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly

Tell us about the new program, City Semester, that is being offered to students this Fall 2017?
City Semester is a great start to transform the student mentality from individual achievement to community engagement. This program will pilot five students to serve one semester outside of the classroom. Students will complete five to eight volunteer hours every week toward a significant service project. Students will be based at the UTSA Downtown Campus and will choose a local nonprofit that works on children's issues, public health, and human trafficking, among other issues. We are very excited to strengthen the service learning curricula in the college with this new program. My personal goal is to have a college where there are no sharp distinctions between the elite academics and the community.

What opportunities do you see for UTSA to enhance and improve its engagement with San Antonio and the surrounding region?
San Antonio is a city that represents what the U.S. will look like in the next 20 years. UTSA already has a strong community relationship and a clear commitment to community partners. I hope that initiatives like City Semester will allow UTSA to be seen as a community resource and a learning hub, a place where residents can pursue learning, and a place where learning becomes a resource to building active and deeply engaged citizens.