Auburn Students Become Small-Town Citizens for the Summer

From his tiny apartment above the B.W. Creel Fire Station, Blake Evans is contemplating life in Linden, Alabama, population 2,123.

Residents of a small town—Mr. Evans, a rising senior at Auburn University, wrote in a recent paper—appreciate qualities that passing visitors often overlook. Although a visitor to this rural community, he is hardly passing through: He's one of seven Auburn students placed in towns across the state this summer as part of a civic-engagement program called Living Democracy.

Auburn and the Kettering Foundation, in Ohio, started Living Democracy in 2010 to help students develop a distinct sense of place as they take on projects their assigned communities choose. This summer's group is the first to take part in a yearlong curriculum, which began last fall. One woman, a sophomore, is connecting youth in Valley, Ala., to a business-development project. A recent graduate is in Selma, collaborating with civic groups to show young residents that there's more to their community than vestiges of the civil-rights-era incident known as Bloody Sunday.

But expectations of students go far beyond completing those specific tasks. Dive in, the students are told. Immerse yourself in your community. Learn the personalities and politics that shape the place.

Mr. Evans, a communications major, is writing a script for a professional video to attract new industry to the town, which took a hit several years ago when the local lumber mill laid off several hundred workers. He is also collaborating with students from the city's two high schools—mostly black Linden High School and mostly white Marengo Academy—on a photography project to identify features of the community worthy of praise and improvement. More than anything, Mr. Evans's job is to become, over the course of the summer, an engaged citizen of Linden.

Last Updated: July 13, 2012