Over the last decade, Illinois State University has become a leader in civic engagement in higher education through its participation in the American Democracy Project.
The American Democracy Project was started in 2003 by The New York Times and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). The goal was to recharge civic engagement on university campuses. Illinois State is now one of 252 universities nationwide that use the project as a central hub for promoting and supporting civic engagement on campus.
“Illinois State is perceived as one of the leading schools,” said Dean of Students Janet Paterson, who co-chairs the project.
In 2006 Illinois State was one of eight universities selected as model political engagement institutions by AASCU, according to School of Communication Interim Director Stephen Hunt. In 2011, Illinois State became the first, and so far only, university to receive the national Program of Excellence Award for Political Engagement.
Hunt said what makes the American Democracy Project unique at Illinois State is that it is a joint effort of both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs, while students’ exposure to the program at other universities is limited to only one of those divisions.
The American Democracy Project hits at the heart of the University’s mission outlined in its strategic plan, Educating Illinois 2013-2018: Individualized Attention, Shared Aspirations. Civic engagement is one of the University’s core values, and one of the plan’s goals is for the University to strengthen its commitment to civic engagement.
“If we didn’t focus on civic engagement, I think that would limit our ability, as an institution of higher education, to really educate students in a way that will help them make a positive impact later,” said Politics and Government Associate Professor Noha Shawki, who co-chairs the project.
The American Democracy Project sponsors civic engagement programs, like the annual Constitution Day event, and funds civic projects, like the School of Communication’s Social Issues Fair. The project also supports volunteer projects across campus.
The project’s mission has expanded over the years. Nationally, the American Democracy Project originally began as a three-year initiative with a focus on service learning and volunteerism, Hunt said. But organizers realized that if universities were going to prepare students to solve problems in the future, they needed to learn how to affect policies and laws.
This led to the creation of the Political Engagement Project, for which Hunt is the current national coordinator. The idea behind this related project is to get students to be problem-solvers and participate in nonpartisan political action, he said.
The University has done this in ways small and large. During presidential election years, the American Democracy Project has helped register thousands of students to vote and held candidate forums. Within the past year it has placed ILSTU Views kiosks at Fell Hall and Milner Library. The Internet-connected touchscreen system allows students to answer questions and enter comments on key questions pertaining to social and political issues, Shawki said.
“We raise the level of conversation of civic debate on campus,” Paterson said.
The University has also enshrined civic engagement in the curriculum by establishing, with the support of State Farm, the civic engagement and responsibility minor. The interdisciplinary minor mixes introduction and capstone courses with electives from across campus that have a civic engagement focus.
Enrollment in the minor has grown to more than 60 students from a handful of students, Hunt said. The elective courses include those related to communication, criminal justice, education, family and consumer sciences, philosophy, psychology, politics and government, sociology, technology, and theatre and dance.
“That’s the neat thing,” Hunt said “They come from all different kinds of majors.”
To grow the number of electives the project has also started a program called Reinvent Your Course for Civic Engagement. This is a series of professional development workshops that helps faculty redesign their courses to have a stronger emphasis on civic engagement, Shawki said.
Hunt said Illinois State administrators, faculty, and staff have all embraced civic engagement.
“I think ISU is very well positioned to move this project forward,” he said.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.