At first glance, the connection between fallen leaves and ballots may not be readily apparent.

Certainly, the act of raking leaves is as much a symbol of fall as the American rite of the November Election Day. At Waubonsee Community College, as at many other colleges and universities across the country, we’re taking a deeper look at ways in which seemingly simple acts of service, such as helping a neighbor clean up their yard, can go a long way toward kindling a more profound engagement with the local community and even the nation at large.

This past year, Waubonsee joined with more than 90 other American colleges and universities to promote the shared goals of the Lead Initiative. Begun by NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (formerly the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators), the Lead Initiative was launched as a network of 50 postsecondary institutions across the United States dedicated to promoting civic engagement among students, both on our campuses and beyond.

The need is, indeed, great.

Half of our states require no formal civics education in grade, middle or even high school. That has contributed to the poor voter participation levels routinely plaguing elections nationwide, placing the U.S. among the world’s democratic countries with the most lackluster voter turnout.

The trend is particularly pronounced among students from lower-income backgrounds. These students often lack access to learning opportunities, including volunteer positions, student government, clubs and activities, that can spark civic engagement and sustain it well into adulthood.

Under the Lead Initiative, we hope to reverse those trends and create a student body that is engaged not only in our classrooms, but also in the communities we call home.

This engagement will be encouraged and expressed in a variety of ways.

To help students raise their voices at local, state and national levels, we have partnered with such organizations as the League of Women Voters for voter registration drives on campus.

Our Student Senate members were active on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, and engaged their classmates in activities designed to raise awareness of American governance, with an emphasis on the right to vote as guaranteed in the Constitution’s 15th Amendment.

We believe efforts like this can be deepened and strengthened by fostering a sense of connection and investment in the community, beginning on the very local level.

Toward that goal, Waubonsee earlier this year launched our Days of Service program, offering students a chance to join with their classmates and peers each semester to lend a hand to civic organizations working in the community.  Dozens of students participated in last spring’s Day of Service, and this month, we expect still more to step forward.

For example, some of our students performed fall cleanup yard work at Mutual Ground, an Aurora-based provider of support programs for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, while others performed similar work at public sites in the Aurora area held by the Fox Valley Park District.

We believe such opportunities help students connect not only with their peers and their schools, but also introduces them to civic volunteers and workers who contribute quietly for the good of our communities every day.

And as these efforts intensify in coming days, months and years, we are excited to see the results on our student body, our college, our communities and our nation.