Very soon, myself and two other UWA students, along with the Academic Coordinator of the McCusker Centre for Citizenship, will pack our cosiest knits and head to the University of Otago in New Zealand to attend the Matariki Global Citizenship Forum. There, we will meet with students and faculty from the six other international universities in the Matariki Network to discuss the concepts of global citizenship and community engagement, and how universities can best develop and implement programs that foster and promote these ideas. ­

Here, the word “citizenship” can cause confusion. Typically, citizenship is associated with being a legal citizen of a particular place, however, global citizenship is about more than that. Global citizenship is about being caring, inclusive, and culturally aware. It’s about supporting your local, national, and global communities by reflecting on your own social positioning within those communities and considering how you can have a positive impact. I love that the term transcends borders and emphasises our connectedness with all of humanity, and for me, it means using the (somewhat limited) skills, knowledge, and resources I have to pursue a better future. But, global citizenship looks different to everyone. To you, it might look like local volunteering or activism, but for somebody else it could mean researching solutions to transnational problems or drafting social policy. To be true global citizens, we should approach the problems we want to solve with curiosity and an open mind and heart. We must learn about them from the people they affect before trying to ‘fix’ anything. Ultimately, global citizenship involves a balancing act of listening, learning and acting in solidarity with fellow global citizens to achieve a better, fairer world for everyone, everywhere.

Yet, like other inherently good concepts, the term “global citizenship” can be exploited, or at least, overused and applied to activities that claim to be ‘doing good’ but have little tangible impact, aside from giving the person doing the so-called ‘good’ the warm fuzzies. As Forum delegates, this has been a concern from the outset. In our first meeting we expressed hopes that the Forum would incite meaningful progress, and equip us with the knowledge, networks and tools to help UWA students actively contribute to the wellbeing of their communities. This vision aligns with the vision of the McCusker Centre for Citizenship (funny that!), which, since it’s establishment in 2016, has already filled what was a major gap at UWA, in helping provide students with real opportunities to be active citizens, by connecting them to internships with community organisations, offering academic units that support active citizenship, and hosting events that bring awareness to social issues. In the short time the Centre has been in existence, 47,900 hours of service have been contributed to the community. Still, our goal in attending this Forum is to see how we can do even better, how we can contribute even more, how we can make sure that citizenship initiatives at UWA continue to hold real value for the people they aim to help, and importantly, ensure that UWA students continue to take action so that this value reaches those people.  

We all agreed that if these goals were to be achieved, we would need to consult people throughout the UWA community from different faculties, clubs, and cultures about what community engagement and active citizenship means to them, and more importantly, what encourages and/or discourages them from being active members of different communities. International students spoke to us about how language was a barrier to community engagement, while others explained that they lacked awareness of issues in their community and how they could use their skillset to help, and paradoxically, some students spoke to us of how they practically needed to be part of a community already to feel comfortable engaging with another community (basically, it’s hard to join a group on your own without some friends in tow). In response to students’ concerns, we drafted, and pilot tested, a Model of Active Citizenship, that we hope will help students and universities overcome these barriers and facilitate the kind of connection and community engagement that leads to active citizenship, and eventually, meaningful impact, within that community. One model to rule them all, one model to find them, one model to bring them all and in the darkness bind them (I couldn’t help myself. We’re going to New Zealand, after all).

The issue of helping students become active citizens is complex, but hopefully the Forum will allow us to learn from others and share our own experiences and insights about best practice. We hope to return home with a new and improved tolerance for cold weather and new and improved ideas about promoting community engagement and global citizenship at UWA. Importantly, we want to make sure that any global citizenship initiatives that might result from the Forum will help ensure that the concept of citizenship does not succumb to the fate of other noble ideas (see, “corporate social responsibility”) in becoming a fatuous, empty buzzword (buzzphrase?), but remains something solid and tangible; A marker of real action and meaningful results.

Shakira Donovan