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Students, professor explore 'reconnecting America' during Harvard conference

The conference for the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement brought together students and faculty from nearly 20 colleges and universities at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. 

A group from Elon recently joined counterparts from 27 other colleges and universities at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University to craft strategies to "reconnect America" during a time when the country is experiencing a period of divisiveness and conflict. 

Josh Cadorette '19 speaks during the conference for the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement while Sophie Zinn '19, right, looks on.

The goal of the conference, organized by the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, was not just discussion, but rather to develop plans that are then taken back to the campaign's 28 member campuses and then put into action. Carrie Eaves, assistant professor of political science and policy studies, was joined by Josh Cadorette '19 and Sophie Zinn '19 at Harvard for the three-day gathering in early February, and said witnessing students from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives working to develop common solutions was encouraging. 

"It was a really nice moment during a time when there is so much partisan rancor and so much frustration," Eaves said. "They got into some heated debates, but they were very respectful and encouraging and optimistic about finding ways to work together."

Elon is one of 28 member institutions participating this year in the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, which since 2003 has held annual conferences to identify projects to encourage collaboration between students, foster participating in the political process and promote civic engagement. Each institution sends a professor or staff member involved in civic engagement efforts and two students to the conference, with the idea that connections made during the conference will continue after, with students continuing to work on joint projects after returning home. 

​Zinn, a sophomore from Indianapolis majoring in international studies and political science, said the conference wasn't what she was expecting, noting that it was "a grassroots effort" to encourage involvement around the topic of reconnecting Americans with one another and with civic institutions. The goal was to learn how to engage with the Institute of Politics and find out more about the resources that the Institute offers. 

A town hall meeting led by John Della Volpe, polling director for the Institute of Politics, focused on identifying problems within society that speak to the disconnection many experience today. Zinn said the students collaboratively identified three major themes — Citizenship, Media and Social Media, and Inequality — and then formed a working group for each theme to identify a more specific problem, and a potential solution. 

Zinn's Citizenship group zeroed in on the lack of civic education among young people. "Starting in middle school, they don't have any idea of what our government really is," Zinn said.  

Zinn said the group began developing a curriculum for middle schools students that would educate students about how to engage with their government and to launch a civics fair project to boost interest in the area. She's continued working with members of her group since returning to Elon, with each member working to a approaching a local school with a proposal for a pilot project to be launched this fall. "I personally believe that knowing what your rights are as a citizen really helps you get involved," she said. "We're trying to get them to actively engage with their community and give them the skills and the background information to try and help them make a change in their own communities."

Along with the opportunity to work collaboratively, the conference also provided the students and faculty members a range of perspectives on political and civic engagement. The group heard from U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III and former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, both of Massachusetts, during an opening keynote session. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and David Gergen, a professor of public service who serves as co-director of the Center for Political Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, as well as a longtime friend of Elon University, offered a historical perspective on civic engagement during a session on the second day. 

"I can honestly say it was the highlight of my Elon career so far," Zinn said. "It was so cool to see people so passionate about what we can do as young adults."

Owen Covington,
3/1/2017 10:15 AM