Back Story – Winter 2013

Published: Feb 5, 2013
(David and student walk down steps in Public Policy building)

Public universities have a tradition of commitment to social responsibility. The UMBC community has taken a giant leap forward in addressing social challenges through a new movement called BreakingGround which debuted in Fall 2012. UMBC Student Government Association President Kaylesh Ramu ’13, political science, and David Hoffman, assistant director of student life for civic agency, are at the forefront of this effort to empower campus stakeholders to tackle issues that matter to them through innovative courses and co-curricular programs.

Where did the idea for BreakingGround originate?

Hoffman: UMBC has been participating for eight or ten years in national conversations about how to take the next big leap in civic engagement—helping students to see themselves as initiators and problemsolvers, not just voters and volunteers.

Ramu: BreakingGround is UMBC’s way of saying we have a strong commitment to civic engagement across campus. In the past, you saw different pockets of it here and there, but BreakingGround is a way we’re connecting everyone.

Hoffman: Democratic engagement is part of UMBC’s DNA. We’ve really been responsible for advancing the argument, nationally, that what happens on campus matters as much to students’ development as what happens in communities beyond the campus. So here at UMBC you don’t go and have a wonderful service placement with the Shriver Center, but then come back to a campus that views you as a customer. You’re a co-creator of this community.

How does this philosophy shape how students see themselves and what they can accomplish?

Ramu: As a student I never thought I would be working with administration on an $800,000 budget. Most times it’s easier to just leave students out of processes like budgeting, but in a community like ours you have so many administrators who really value giving students that opportunity and who enable reciprocal learning to happen. They recognize that one person can’t solve all our problems. It’s perspectives from across our community coming together into a greater conversation that makes change happen.

Hoffman: Part of what we hope alumni will take with them when they leave UMBC is an ability to see the people around them as full human beings, with unique skills and ambitions, and not just their social roles.

How has BreakingGround resonated with the UMBC community?

Hoffman: Part of what has amazed me about this process is how intuitive it is for so many people at UMBC. When the provost talks about UMBC as a scholarly community, I think this is what he’s talking about—a community of human beings who want to make a difference together finding ways to apply their intellects and their talents and their passions to contribute to the common good.

Ramu: I’ve seen students do amazing things here and that gives me the sense of confidence that public service is not really about your age, it’s about your determination.

Why should other universities move to boost campus-wide civic engagement?

Hoffman: Most colleges and universities are preparing students to vote and to volunteer. At UMBC we’re preparing them to innovate, to see possibilities and solve problems. That implies a very different set of skills and a very different orientation to themselves. This reflects growing consensus, articulated by the U.S. Department of Education, that this is exactly what universities need to be doing.

Ramu: I worry about colleges that don’t have this type of component, where students are running through, just taking online courses, and they miss out on other kinds of learning. If higher education is not preparing them to engage in their communities, when do they learn that? My experience with civic engagement at UMBC is part of why I feel so connected to this community. I’m going to be a proud alum.

— Dinah Winnick

Learn more about BreakingGround at

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