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Political Engagement Begins on Campus

Civic Engagement
July 11, 2017 Adam Gismondi Institute for Democracy & Higher Education

The following blog post is an excerpt from “Informed and Active: Political Engagement Begins on Campus” originally published in Leadership Exchange volume fifteen, issue two, summer 2017.

Political Learning Can Be Cultivated

Work is political. Education is political. Life is political. In order to fully engage with political life, individuals must develop the skills to navigate structures, foster an intrinsic commitment to their roles as positive civic actors, and gain political knowledge. Student affairs is a well-suited space for students to develop these competencies, particularly when it comes to political skill building. As students are brought into the processes of college and university decision making, they begin to engage with, and learn through, political structures. This active participation, occurring in an environment that holds actors accountable but often with lower stakes than many other environments, can serve as a profound learning lab for students. True “preparation” of college and university students is incomplete without development of student competencies that prepare students for the world they will encounter when they educate.

Student affairs professionals can serve dual roles as both mentors and supervisors to students, many of whom may be new to hierarchical and bureaucratic structures. In order to effectively promote student political learning within governance structures, vice presidents for student affairs (VPSAs) and other administrators need to see students as colleagues who are worthy of seats at the table. VPSAs can serve as the champions of this cause on individual campuses and collectively can lead the way for a national paradigm shift.

Campus Climate Research

As part of ongoing research on student political learning and engagement in democracy, the IDHE research team conducted a nine-campus qualitative study on institutional climates. Campuses were selected for their unpredicted high (and low) voting rates based on the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) and for institutional diversity characteristics such as location, student populations, and institution type. Individual respondent and focus groups were also intentionally stratified across various criteria, including community status (student, faculty, staff), class level, discipline, and leadership roles as described by Nancy Thomas and Margaret Brower in Politics 365: Fostering Campus Climates for Student Political Learning and Engagement (American Political Science Association, 2017). The goal was to identify attributes of those institutions that may support conditions for student political learning and engagement.

Student collaboration was a central theme emerging from the study. At these institutions, students were included broadly in decision making, and they were given tangible responsibilities that varied among institutions, but included authority over budgets, physical spaces, and policy matters. Student input was not a secondary consideration for administrators; it was an important and necessary component in campus processes. Formal structures established on these campuses ensured long-term student involvement in decision making, and processes were created to train student leaders in deliberative governance and policy creation. Students at these institutions expressed a sense of ownership over the direction of their institutions, recognized the importance of varied student populations, and felt able to share in institutional decision making.