Life Outside the Bubble: Reflections from Wake Forest University Alumni

How can colleges and universities better prepare students to be civically engaged after they graduate? At Wake Forest University, we asked alumni how well the university had equipped them for their civic and political roles in society and how it might do this more effectively in the future. We wanted to know how the process of learning to deliberate might affect alumni’s civic engagement in the “real world.” Deliberative dialogue provides a forum for people to debate complex issues productively and respectfully, find common ground, build the critical thinking skills required to see issues from different perspectives, and recognize their roles as citizens capable of creating change (Harriger and McMillan 2007).

In a study on the long-term impact of learning to deliberate (Harriger et al. 2017, 2015), we interviewed forty alumni, all of whom graduated from Wake Forest in 2005. Half of the alumni had participated in a four-year program called Democracy Fellows, where they learned the theory and practice of deliberative dialogue. The other half were alumni from a class cohort selected to match the demographics of the Democracy Fellows group in terms of college major, race, and gender. (In this article, we refer to the Democracy Fellows alumni as DFs and the class cohort alumni as CCs.) We interviewed the alumni by video conference in 2014 and 2015, and they responded to an online survey following the interview.

When we asked participants how Wake Forest could better prepare students for future civic engagement, their suggestions coalesced around what both DFs and CCs called “bursting the Wake Forest bubble.” Specifically, they recommended cultivating a more proactive connection with their community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; a greater appreciation for diversity; and a heightened ability and motivation to speak to others across difference.

Understanding the Bubble

Most respondents praised their college education, yet most interviewees (DFs and CCs alike) also criticized what they termed “the Wake Forest bubble,” an invisible barrier that “protects” students from the realities of life beyond campus. One respondent stated,

I think Wake Forest is really kind of in a bubble, right? We are a closed off campus from the rest of the community, and I feel like when I was a student that the relationship between the students at Wake Forest and the people who lived in town was kind of nonexistent. We weren’t necessarily giving back to the community, and the community wasn’t necessarily wanting to get involved with us.

After years of round-the-clock community access, Wake Forest installed gates at three campus entrances in 1996, limiting access to campus between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Despite legitimate safety concerns, students, faculty, administrators, and staff worried even then that “Wake Fortress” might further contribute to the sense that students resided in a “rarefied bubble” (McMillan 2004, 195).

However, the bubble to which both DFs and CCs referred is more metaphorical than material; one respondent described it as “a huge, symbolic wall” surrounding the campus. Some alumni attributed this barrier to institutional policies, but most respondents pointed to students’ “fear of the unknown” and a reluctance to “get outside their comfort zones.” A community deliberative dialogue that DFs planned and executed during their junior year might have raised their consciousness, as DFs described the bubble as a barrier to students’ political and social awareness twice as often as did CCs. Not only did the experience force DFs from the bubble but it also exposed tensions between “town and gown” of which CCs may have been unaware.

Alumni from both groups, many of whom professed love for their alma mater, in retrospect saw it, in the words of one respondent, as a place of “privilege” that shielded many “children of affluence,” including themselves, from political and social engagement. One CC opined that although he understood the need for safety, the school was “missing opportunities” beyond its walls. The recommendations that our alumni, DFs and CCs alike, proposed fall into three broad categories: connect with the community, enhance awareness of diversity, and increase opportunities for discussion and dialogue.   

Connect with the Community

Our alumni expressed a profound, even wistful, sense that they had spent their college years in a town they hardly knew. One DF remarked, “Winston-Salem is an incredibly dynamic community that I discovered probably the last eight months I lived there. There’s a whole lot of things going on and there needs to be a push to get students out of the classroom and into the community.” Another DF admonished Wake Forest to look close to home for social and political issues to examine in the classroom:

There’s homeless people in Winston[-Salem] and . . . there’s poverty. . . . I feel that there needs to be more of an attitude from the administration . . . that the school really values social awareness.

Suggested remedies, especially from CCs, leaned heavily toward academic reforms, such as offering more classes that explore social and political problems, more service learning, and more local internships. One CC suggested “some requirement for students to attend town hall meetings, city council meetings, and school board meetings.” The DFs outpaced the CCs in suggesting that citizenship extends beyond traditional notions of service such as volunteering in a soup kitchen. The DFs more often wove a subtle counternarrative that featured actions such as being knowledgeable about current issues and engaging in political talk as integral parts of civic engagement. Training in deliberative dialogue seemed to generate more awareness of the importance of civic and political involvement.

Some respondents reflected the opinion of democracy and higher education researcher Nancy L. Thomas (1998) when she argued that colleges and universities have too long played the role of “expert” to their neighbors, resisting the more egalitarian posture of “partner,” and that they often have not “listened” well to community needs. The alumni we studied, perhaps informed by their experiences since college, seemed to regard the ideal relationship as a two-way street with opportunities to learn from the community as well as to instruct it. One DF described a reciprocal relationship with his community after graduation:

I feel like I am a citizen of my town . . . that I live here, I need to contribute here. So I guess [I would like] for Wake [Forest] to feel more like . . . we’re trying to have an impact on Winston-Salem, and Winston-Salem has impact on us.

Enhance Awareness of Diversity

Political theorist Iris Marion Young (1999) has argued that one of democracy’s greatest challenges is navigating difference: different people, ideas, language, races, and cultures. Members of the class of ’05 recognized that they were schooled in a homogeneous, majority white, affluent environment. Although they examined diverse ideas in class, they recalled an ethnic and cultural sameness that had not prepared them for the diversity they encountered after college. They criticized themselves and Wake Forest for not engaging more with people in the more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse Winston-Salem.

Twice as many DFs as CCs mentioned the importance of developing understanding of difference, perhaps because DFs’ deliberative dialogue training taught them to look for it—in the personal stories they heard, the examination of the values that people held dear, and the common ground they sought to establish (Diebel 2016). One poignant example came from a DF who cited the 1960 sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, which began at the Woolworth’s in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina, and even involved Wake Forest students at the Winston-Salem Woolworth’s weeks later:

The whole [civil] rights movement I think is really important. . . . You know we (the college) were like 30 miles from the Woolworth’s in Greensboro. . . . There are so many children of affluence [who] probably have no idea about some of the struggles. . . . They’re not bad people; they just don’t know about it. And I think it’s something worth thinking about what that struggle meant to so many different people.

Alumni suggested ways to promote the examination of difference, privilege, and systemic inequality, including bringing provocative speakers to campus, encouraging more study abroad experiences, and urging professors to be fearless about allowing controversial subjects to be aired in their classrooms because, as one DF argued, “you just might learn something from even those with whom you disagree.”

Increase Opportunities for Discussion and Dialogue

All interviewees favored widespread discussion and dialogue as the best solution for bursting the bubble. Respondents from both groups offered ideas about how that might be accomplished, including a CC who recommended fostering “an open environment to appreciate different points of view and active listening on both sides” and a DF who suggested finding “a way to make sure their students are prepared to be engaged in . . . the conversation”[emphasis added]. Still, DFs, such as the one below, were more adamant than CCs about the value of dialogue and quicker to recommend deliberative training:

A lot of stuff we talked about in Democracy Fellows was teaching people how to talk to folks who don’t have the same beliefs as they do. And I’m not talking about sitting down and just having a conversation. I mean like let’s get out the marker board, what can we actually . . . solve? . . . You can find some common ground with everyone.

CCs recognized discussion and dialogue as important components missing from their college experience. One CC proposed a curricular change that would establish the value of deliberative dialogue:

Instead of [first-year seminars focused on] individual professors’ niche interests, have classes that [are] geared more towards being civic where you . . . learn how to have discussions with other people about ideas that [don’t devolve] into all the pitfalls of . . . straw man arguments. Instead, . . . learning how to have civic discussion in a civilized and calm, respectful way would be a good use of time.

Conclusion

When these members of the class of ’05 evaluated their civic preparation at Wake Forest, their assessment was mixed. Although they praised much of their college education, these alumni had learned from the “real world” that the life of a citizen is not as comfortable as living in the bubble might have led them to believe. Rather, it is messy, frustrating, and sometimes disappointing. Still, these young adults offered remedies to that discomfort: engage in your community; grapple with people and ideas that challenge your own; and talk, talk, talk to discover what unites, not divides, you from others.

Wake Forest has taken steps in response to these and other findings in two published studies of the DF program (Harriger and McMillan 2007; Harriger et al. 2017). Since 2012, Wake Forest has held three campus-wide deliberative dialogues with a focus on inclusivity. After the 2014 dialogue, the university formed action teams to investigate ways to implement the outcomes of these deliberative dialogues (http://community.wfu.edu/). A recent pilot for a first-year experience course, which supports first-year students’ transition to college, incorporated deliberative principles and skills. Initial assessments indicate the course has a positive impact on curiosity about and comfort with differences. The university is considering how to integrate deliberative dialogue and community involvement more consistently for more students, which might help address the prevailing climate of division that plagues our nation. Wake Forest also recently opened a downtown campus that, by both design and accident, is literally and figuratively doing exactly as its alumni advised: taking students outside of the bubble.

References

Diebel, Alice. 2016. Facilitating Public Issues: Best Practices. Dayton, Ohio: National Issues Forum Institute. https://www.nifi.org/en/catalog/product/facilitating-public-issues-best-practices-alice-diebel

Harriger, Katy J., and Jill J. McMillan. 2007. Speaking of Politics: Preparing College Students for Democratic Citizenship through Deliberative Dialogue. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press.

Harriger, Katy, Jill J. McMillan, Christy M. Buchanan, and Stephanie Gusler. 2015. “The Long-Term Impact of Learning to Deliberate.” Diversity & Democracy 18 (4): 27–28. https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2015/fall/harriger.

Harriger, Katy, Jill McMillan, Christy Buchanan, and Stephanie Gusler. 2017. The Long-Term Impact of Learning to Deliberate: A Follow-Up Study of Democracy Fellows and a Class Cohort. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press.

McMillan, Jill J. 2004. “The Potential for Civic Learning in Higher Education: ‘Teaching Democracy by Being Democratic.’” Southern Communication Journal 69 (3): 188–205.

Thomas, Nancy L. 1998. Community Perceptions: What Higher Education Can Learn by Listening to Communities. Tallahasee, Florida: American Council of Education.

Young, Iris Marion. 1999. “Communication and the Other.” Kettering Review 17 (1): 21–30.


Jill J. McMillan is Professor Emerita in the Department of Communication at Wake Forest University; Katy J. Harriger is a Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University; Christy M. Buchanan is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Advising at Wake Forest University; and Stephanie K. Gusler is a Former Graduate Student in the Department of Psychology at Wake Forest University and a Doctoral Student in the Clinical Child Psychology Program at the University of Kansas.

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