Originally published in the Illinois State Report

Illinois State University has received the highest award for its leadership in developing politically engaged students as the only recipient of the 2011 New York Times Political Engagement Project (PEP) Program of Excellence Award.

The award recognizes the efforts of faculty and staff to provide opportunities for students in the classroom, on campus, and in the community to develop skills related to political processes and leadership. Illinois State has been lauded as a model for campuses across the country and as an innovator in the field. The PEP is part of the American Democracy Project and is an initiative of the Provost’s Office in collaboration with representatives from Student Affairs.

“Graduating civically engaged and politically minded students is an increasingly important objective for all colleges and universities,” said Illinois State President Al Bowman. “Illinois State students are encouraged to be responsible citizens and leave here with skills that will help them make meaningful contributions to their communities and their country. This award validates the hard work of faculty and staff to incorporate political engagement in the classroom and beyond.”

Beginning as freshmen, approximately 3,500 students annually are exposed to PEP efforts in the curriculum. All sections of the required course, Communication as Critical Inquiry (COM 110), use political examples to highlight course concepts with written assignments requiring students to link politics, group campaigns, or political issues to class content. Steve Hunt, professor of communication, serves as the Carnegie PEP Scholar for COM 110 course activities.

“The national Program of Excellence Award recognizes Illinois State’s leadership in preparing graduates for active citizenship,” said Hunt. “Illinois State faculty, staff, and students contribute significantly to the community by deeply integrating the Political Engagement Project into the curriculum and co-curriculum, and we are honored to be selected as the inaugural winner of the prestigious award.”

In addition to COM 110, freshmen have the option to enroll in The First Year Learning in Communities (LinC) Seminar, an eight-week course that helps first-year students learn about campus resources, transition to college, identify potential majors and careers and introduce them to political engagement. All incoming first-year athletes are required to enroll in the LinC Seminar. Over the last four years many new activities, assignments, and discussion topics have been developed related to the goals of PEP including election issues, community and campus involvement, and diversity.

Students who develop an interest in political engagement as freshmen can also take advantage of courses that satisfy part of their general education requirements, or that count towards the civic engagement and responsibility minor, which combines two new courses with existing courses and curriculum as well as out-of-class service-learning.

Approximately 2,100 students each year enroll in the Individuals and Civic Life Middle Core general education courses which include: Citizens and Governance, American Government, U.S. Government and Civic Practices, Introduction to Political Thinking, U.S. Judicial Process, U.S. Presidency, Campaign Politics, Constitutional Law, and Graduate Seminar in Judicial Politics. Robert Bradley, politics and government professor and Carnegie PEP Scholar for the middle core of the general education program, also coordinates efforts to infuse PEP into Criminal Justice courses such as Society and Justice.

For faculty that want to cultivate political engagement in other courses, the Community Engaged Classrooms (CEC) project assists them in identifying potential political engagement projects and establishing partnerships with community organizations.

The PEP team has also created enrichment opportunities for students across disciplines. More than 20 students over two summers participated in the Washington D.C. Study Tour. This program, open to all majors, is now being redesigned as an internship, in which three students have enrolled for summer 2011.

PEP is also being integrated into cocurricular activities. Members of the registered student organizations, Lambda Pi Eta and COMM, recently collaborated with a local non-partisan community group to host a debate about public financing options for political campaigns. Earlier in the semester, the PEP team worked with the same group to host a forum on financing for public schools. Members of Illinois State’s nationally recognized speech team, the Student Government Association and the Political Science Club were especially active during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles as participants in the Trust Me, I’m A Voter campaign. Illinois State faculty and students also partnered with the PEP team to host a Town Hall meeting with U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and Congressman Adam Kinzinger.

Illinois State was selected as one of 12 institutions to participate in a national American Democracy Project initiative, the Political Engagement Project. A joint initiative of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, American Association of State Colleges and Universities and New York Times, it addresses the serious problem of political disengagement in young people and advocates a dramatic increase in college and university efforts to strengthen student interest in politics. The primary mission of PEP is to enhance Illinois State students’ awareness and understanding of political engagement and impact their level of political involvement and leadership. This project rests on the assumption that institutions of higher education must educate students for political engagement in order to develop the kind of informed political participation that is essential for a meaningful democracy.