2023 Hoch Award for Excellence Recipient Anita Ruf-Young

2023 Hoch Award for Excellence Recipient Anita Ruf-Young

Anita A. Ruf-Young
Director, Office of Civic Engagement
Program Coordinator of the Viking Corps and the America Reads Programs
Maxine Goodman Levin School of Urban Affairs
Cleveland State University

I have worked in higher education administration for 24 years. My career started as an Academic Advisor, University Orientation Coordinator, and instructor at my alma mater, Kent State University. After six years, I found myself wanting to utilize and expand my skill set and work with a different student population. I also wanted to experience the strengths and challenges an urban campus had to offer. My initial role at Cleveland State University (CSU) was as a Career Coordinator which allowed me to assist students in building their resumes and connecting them with internships, co-ops, and other experiential learning opportunities. After four years, I was asked to become the Program Coordinator for a community service-learning program called America Reads. At that time, I had no idea how saying yes to that offer would change the trajectory of my life professionally and personally. It was through this program that I found my passion for community service-learning and civic engagement. 

Building mutually beneficial partnerships with public, nonprofit community-based partners by placing CSU students in under-resourced organizations and agencies and seeing that impact turned my passion into a mission. Every day I have the unique opportunity to connect our CSU students and campus community with the broader Cleveland community in very meaningful and measurable ways through community service-learning and civic engagement initiatives. I am fortunate to work at a University that wholeheartedly embraces and drives my work. At CSU we proudly state that The City is Our Campus, and we promote active Engaged Learning. Our Viking Creed which states, “I will make a positive impact on campus and in my community.” I work every day to live up to those standards and values through building strategic, long-term, mutually beneficial community partnerships. I am proud to see the impact of my work manifest daily.

For the past 25 years, the America Reads program has served youth in Cleveland and surrounding communities in grades K-12 who are seeking homework help at local libraries in all subject areas. Each year for the past 14 years, I have proposed and have been awarded a grant from the Cleveland Public Library (CPL), to fund CSU tutor wages for these positions. Every semester I recruit, hire, place, and supervise CSU students who tutor and serve as mentors and role models in these community service-learning positions. When we connect students of all majors to meaningful community service-learning work like this, everyone wins. Youth get the help they need while the tutors not only gain real-world work experience and develop soft skills, build their resumes and networks while earning money to help them defray some of the costs of earning a college degree. Equally significant, they develop a lifelong commitment to service in communities that are diverse economically and educationally under-resourced.

My partnership with the Cleveland Public Libraries is our longest service-learning partnership. Thousands of CSU students have been placed at 28 of their library branches over the years.

With the success of the America Reads program, my interest in community service-learning grew. I knew I could do more and have a bigger impact. In 2017, using the structure of the grant-based America Reads program, I developed the Viking Corps program which expanded community service-learning opportunities for additional CSU students and community partners who did not have the budget to pay student wages. Viking Corps expands the number of CSU students who utilize their Federal Work Study (FWS) awards by serving others off-campus. Through Viking Corps, I forged short and long-term partnerships with other public, nonprofit organizations including Cuyahoga County Public Library, The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Cleveland, AmeriCorps, McGregor Home, The Centers for Families and Children, Save Our Children, Koinonia Camp, Heights Library, Destination Cleveland, and two Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) high schools – Davis Aerospace and Maritime (Davis A & M) and Teen Refugee Response. Davis A & M high school which focuses on STEM subjects was one of my first Viking Corps program partners. This five-year partnership created momentum for more partners, including Teen Refugee Response where CSU students assist refugee students. This new partnership has already grown from one to two locations in two semesters, John Marshall High School and International Newcomers Academy.

While numbers do not tell the whole story of these community service-learning programs, a snapshot of their impact from just the past five years can be conveyed.
● The OCE hires and places approximately 80 CSU students each year.
● The OCE has hired 406 CSU tutors in the last five years.
● These tutors have tutored and assisted 30,228 community members in the last five years.
● The OCE tutors have earned $220,972.65 in Federal Work Study (FWS) dollars.
● The OCE tutors have earned $167,458.79 in CPL Grant Budget funds.
● The OCE tutors have altogether earned $388,431.44.
● The OCE tutors worked a total of 33,074.15 hours.

Additional agencies request assistance all the time and I refuse to let their needs go unmet.

In 2018, I was approached to temporarily cover the civic engagement side of the Office of Civic Engagement since the America Reads and Viking Corps programs were already housed in the same department. I was already immersed in community engagement but not in civic engagement. While related and complementary, community and civic engagement are not the same things. I accepted the challenge, and again my professional and personal life trajectory changed.

I had to learn quickly. There was no roadmap or directives to guide my new work. I worked for two and a half years building the civic engagement infrastructure to institutionalize voter and civic engagement into CSU’s systems and culture. I implemented these initiatives before becoming the Director of the OCE in 2021 while still managing the operations and communications of the America Reads and Viking Corps programs. To mobilize CSU civic education, engagement, and voting, I annually submit a Democracy Action Plan for CSU to the ALL IN Democracy Challenge. This plan has been nationally recognized by the ALL IN organization. In 2018 and 2020, CSU received Gold Awards as our voting rate increased to 73.5% in the 2020 presidential election with 89% of our student body registered to vote. My annual submissions to receive these designations provide me an opportunity to sharpen our Campus Democracy Action Plan by researching and implementing new ideas to engage students civically. Most recently, we were recognized as a 2022 ALL IN Most Engaged Campus for College Student Voting. CSU was one of 394 colleges and universities recognized for our efforts to increase nonpartisan democratic engagement in the 2022 election. My intentional efforts to increase student voter participation have evolved and been recognized over time.

My plan to create and promote nonpartisan resources, information and opportunities for students is multifaceted and could not be done without civic-minded partners. I have brought on new partners with each passing school year to expand the OCE’s campus reach – I cannot do this work alone. Some of my most engaged off and on-campus partnerships include Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates, the Greater Cleveland League of Women Voters, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Campus Vote Project, Cleveland Votes, First Year Experience (FYE), the Michael Schwartz Library, and Athletics. To embed civic engagement into the DNA of CSU the OCE works all year long, not only around elections, to ensure our campus community is registered to vote and informed on local, state, and national voting issues. Our engagement is successful because we go beyond one-off interactions – we attend campus events and host our own all year long and are a consistent presence in the CSU community.

I initiated a strategic partnership with FYE Introduction to University Life and developed a curriculum called Vikes! Vote. The Vikes! Vote civic curriculum reaches the desks of every first-year student and ends with a call to action. 1,355 voter information packets were delivered to FYE students in fall 2022 alone. A few other fall highlights include hosting 28 voter registration and information tables on campus where we registered 375 students to vote and 283 applied to vote by mail, co-hosted a Student Civic Dialogue with the League of Women Voters, mentored three Democracy Fellows, recruited 92 Election Night Ballot Box Openers for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, arranged for multiple students to be interviewed by campus, local, and national media around youth voting, and walked over to our local Board of Elections with our Men’s Basketball team where some of the players voted for the first time hopeful beginning a life-long voting habit. Beyond in-person engagement, I prioritize a strong presence on social media and my Office’s website which I designed and update regularly, which has earned the highest and second highest website trafficking views for my college for several months in 2021.

Being a one-woman office, to achieve the mission of the OCE I rely heavily on my 1-2 Graduate Assistants per year and the support of the Levin College of Public Affairs and Education that the OCE is housed in. While my staffing has not increased, the work I am called to do continues to grow. Thanks to CSU, the College and Dean, Graduate Assistants, the CSU student workers, and dozens of partnerships, I can continue to make positive impacts on campus and in my community. These community programs connect both me and the CSU students who are in the trenches alongside our community partners to address achievement gaps of some of Cleveland’s most vulnerable youth and by equipping our student voters with nonpartisan resources and driving them to the polls to make their voices heard.

Earning national awards for CSU around voting or having strong engagement statistics is not what tells me these efforts are successful. For me, success in community and civic engagement is when students return semester after semester to tutor and refer other CSU students. Joy is when high school students we have tutored become CSU students and want to tutor at their alma maters. I cannot think of a better example of embracing service-learning than this example – that you received a benefit from someone else’s service, and you now want to pay it forward. Success is seeing the smiling faces of kids in the pictures my partners send me, being present when a student registers to vote or votes for the first time, receiving emails and social media shout-outs from library branch managers or classroom teachers about how much they love our tutors, hearing how tutoring the kids and teens have helped our CSU students with their own cultural or language barriers, or watching the pride in CSU students’ faces when they are interviewed by news media who want their opinion on youth voting. Finding my passion made me also find the leader inside myself. Working in community service-learning and civic engagement there are always more needs than there are resources. To expand our commitments, I had to be more creative, efficient, form additional meaningful partnerships, and take risks when there was no roadmap. For me, the development of the OCE was not about titles, pay, or the long hours worked, it was about building something impactful for those we serve. This work inspired me to re-engage back in the community, personally. For example, I recently participated in charity walks for the Cuyahoga County Animal Shelter, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and donate to causes that resonate with me.