U. program encourages engagement in politics

Darien community gives students hands-on experience, instruction

In a move to encourage coursework and firsthand experience, the Darien Learning Community for Citizenship and Civic Engagement was created for students to mix political thought with practice.

The new nonresidential learning community, whose sponsors include the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy and the Eagleton Institute of Politics, gives 15 to 20 students on campus the opportunity to work and broaden their knowledge of politics, said Ghada Endick, director of learning communities.

Andrew Murphy, director of the Walt Whitman Center, teaches students “American Political Thought,” while Elizabeth Matto, an assistant research professor at Eagleton, teaches “Topics in Political Science: Citizenship and Civic Engagement.”

Murphy said students learn about the historical and philosophical foundations of U.S. government in his classroom at Eagleton, while students become more engaged in politics through the Youth Political Participation Program in Matto’s class.

“It bridges the theory of government with the practice of government,” Murphy said.

Students are actively involved with the institute’s RU Voting initiative, a nonpartisan effort to get students informed and registered to vote, Matto said.

“They’re helping me and themselves really get an opportunity to see how politics is working, specifically how it is working on the youth and how they participate in the political process,” she said. “But the most [important] thing is that the students aren’t just sitting, reading and talking, but out there and doing it.”

She said there is a growing need to find ways to integrate active political learning into the coursework despite the challenges higher educational institutions face.

Jessica Brand, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore who is participating in the new learning community, said the value of the citizen’s voice in government is often underestimated and undervalued.

“Too many students and young people these days do not recognize the relevance of politics to their lives and that they have a duty to address issues and speak up in the face of injustice,” she said.

Mark Feaster, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and Darien community member, said politics is something most students are interested in, but are too intimidated by to actively practice.

“[Students] undervalue [politics] as a means to see change in the world,” he said. “Our generation tends to put more of an emphasis on community service projects as a means to change things as opposed to contacting their representative or bringing the issue into the political arena.”

Feaster said he is compiling a glossary of political terms some students might find confusing, which they can use to better understand subject matter in news articles and presidential debates.

“Other kids are working on projects such as making a voter guidebook, organizing social events that encourage voting, or targeting certain organizations for voter registration drives,” he said.

The students in the community recently participated in an interactive session with Christopher Phillips, author of “Constitution Café,” and were able to think about how they would revise the constitution if it were revisited today, Matto said.

Murphy and Matto visit one another’s classes to stay connected, which Murphy said creates a better learning environment for students.

Steven and Susan Darien are University alumni who are funding this new learning community.

“The Dariens are very interested in fostering student engagement in civic affairs and in students engaging their fellow students. It’s not so much on a partisan basis but in regards to engaging the society,” he said.

Endick said her office’s role is to develop methods that increase faculty involvement with undergraduates and promote active student engagement in the University.

By Julian Chokkattu

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