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Promoting Student Political Engagement and Awareness at the University of South Dakota

How does a university prepare students to take active roles in democracy—roles beyond the ballot box—as engaged citizens who help frame both issues and solutions in communities, the nation, and the world? The question is an important one, especially given Robert Putnam’s thesis that Americans are no longer participating in the kind of vibrant civic life that is critical to the success of a democratic republic (2000). To counter the erosion of what Putnam calls “social capital,” universities have a responsibility to provide students with an education in active democratic citizenship. The University of South Dakota (USD) and its department of political science has worked to accomplish this through the creation of civic space outside of the classroom, the utilization of course learning objectives, and the promotion of a culture of civic engagement among faculty members in the department. Together, these efforts contribute to a more vibrant civic life among students, faculty, and members of the community at large.

Creating Civic Space

The concepts of civic space refers to places—social, physical, or even virtual—in which members of a community can come together and share in public. At USD, the creation of civic space is a key strategy in our efforts to provide students with an education in democratic citizenship and includes efforts to develop and support organizations, courses, processes, and a culture that contribute to the development of engaged citizens.

Several student organizations take responsibility for engaging students in ideas about democracy. One such example is the Political Science League (PSL), an engaged student organization that has hosted numerous public forums, and facilitates these discussions in a nonpartisan fashion. PSL forums typically receive strong attendance from USD students, faculty, and community members alike. Beyond these facilitated forums, PSL has a speaker series, a policy think tank, and actively participates in a broad set of campus functions developed by other organizations/institutions in the community. Its “Thursdays at Four” discussion group invites the campus community to informally discuss a difficult public issue with faculty and students for an hour, one afternoon a week.

PSL was started more than fifty years ago by W. O. (Doc) Farber, who strongly believed in developing “the background to know, the vision to see, the will to do.” Farber’s legacy in the department of political science and for PSL advances his belief that the keys to a happy and productive life are “participation, involvement and concern for others.” With this, the PSL’s goal is to present information to students and the community in a way that creates active discussion, and allows individual ideas and opinions to be formed and then questioned. The PSL does this through its many activities, all of which build a foundation for rational decisions of citizens and scholars alike.

Another key component of USD’s strategy for promoting civic engagement is the active support of two campus political party organizations, the College Democrats and College Republicans. For example, the College Democrats are encouraged by political science faculty mentors to maintain a close relationship with the county Democratic committee by providing needed labor for annual events and elections, as well as through facilitating the recruitment of students for campaigns by inviting candidates and leaders to campus. Students trade labor for free admission to state party events and created a statewide federation of College Democrats to coordinate statewide events. In nonelection years, College Democrats take the initiative to educate the campus at large on a series of issues, including the American health care system and the Iraq War, by sponsoring related films, discussions, and events.

Similarly, the College Republicans at USD routinely engage in events and activities that have the effect of promoting political engagement among our students, such as the maintenance of a College Republican daily political blog. This online feature offers students political news and analysis that is generated by fellow students. It serves as a space in which our students can develop skills they carry with them after graduation to a life of active democratic citizenship. Additionally, over the past year, the College Republicans hosted the 2008 State College Republicans Convention on campus, which brought together Republican students, alumni, and leaders from across the state. This convention provided our students with the opportunity to network statewide with Republican leaders and fellow College Republicans. Finally, in addition to setting up voter registration drives, the College Republicans are substantively involved in local and national elections. This affords our students the chance to gain valuable experience with local, state, and national politics—often in paid positions or internships—and ultimately translates into meaningful postgraduation civic engagement.

Just as important as the individual activities of the College Republicans and Democrats are in the creation of civic space is the dialogue and cooperation that exists between the two organizations. An annual jointly sponsored policy debate, for example, provides civic space for students on either side of the political spectrum to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issues of the day. Likewise, the College Republicans and Democrats cooperate in sponsoring a “Last Chance All Night Voter Registration Drive,” which not only had the positive effect of increasing the number of registered voters, but also provided the opportunity for students to work actively together to promote civic engagement.

Of course, it takes more than the existence of organizations to create an activist student body. It has been critical for each organization to have a faculty mentor who meets with group leaders periodically to encourage them to think broadly about their role on campus and in the community. In addition, the department contributes the resources necessary to sustain such activities including speaker’s fees and the occasional pizza. Student groups often partner with departments and other organizations in order to obtain increased resources and a broader communication network to support events. These partnerships result in healthier turnout for civic and political events than would be possible with one sponsor. While more senior students can carry on the civic traditions, faculty input is necessary to maintain a strong, active civic culture.

Finally, the creation of civic spaces can be thought of literally, as well. What spaces on campus are congenial to the kinds of deliberative discussions that promote civic engagement? Is there a theater space that is flexible enough to accommodate both a film and the post-film discussion? Does the library’s interior space promote the formation of small group meetings? Is there conference space near faculty offices for small groups to meet with professors to organize and plan events? The traditional university quadrangle is especially well designed to facilitate unplanned conversations among faculty and students from various departments and these are critical to communicating across departmental lines. Thus, facilities planning and architecture play an important role in structuring spaces where the university community can engage. Finally, if universities desire to engage the surrounding community, they must provide visitor parking. There are few greater discouragements to community participation than the inability to park.

Utilizing Course Learning Objectives

The political science department and the university also seek to make students more politically engaged through the utilization of political engagement course learning outcomes. The course Introduction to Research Methods, for example, incorporates an action research component. This emerging approach to teaching research methods recognizes that traditional pedagogical approaches are less effective than those in which students are active participants in the research process. Thus, students in this course take part in an ongoing exit poll that is delivered in the fall of even years (national and statewide election years), and analyzed and disseminated in following semesters. Students participate in developing questions for the survey, delivering the in-person survey at several polling locations throughout the state, entering data from the surveys, analyzing the data and presenting findings to media and research audiences. This realtime and real-life experience in contemporary polling practices prepares students with a range of skills and values to carry forward in their life after the course. It is planned and executed as an experience in democratic citizenship from both philosophical and technical perspectives. One might easily call the class “Applied Democratic Theory,” rather than Introduction to Research Methods, as the lessons are more broadly conceived and presented as learning for democratic citizenship and engagement.

Another course example, Campaigns and Democracy, is designed to introduce students to practical politics and to reflect on the impact of campaigns on the quality of democracy. Candidates for political office and campaign representatives attend the first class of the semester in order to recruit students, who are then required to spend a minimum of eight hours a week working on a campaign until Election Day. During this period, the class focuses on practical campaign skills and utilizes a campaign manual as the course text. After Election Day, students focus on evaluating the extent to which the campaign system in which they have worked provides good governance and responsive democracy. Course alumni have successfully run for elected office and served as city council members and state legislators, and many have gone on to become political professionals working for candidates, political parties, and political consulting groups. The American Political Science Association has included the syllabus for Campaigns and Democracy in its model syllabus collection on political parties and elections.

In the university at large, the Interdisciplinary Education and Action (IdEA) Program requires that students take a six-credit course sequence that focuses on community, sustainability and justice issues, culminating in a community service project that applies course concepts to real life. The goal is to give students the experience of investigating important contemporary issues and devising a plan for responding proactively to an issue of interest. Thus, students take on local projects that take them beyond campus boundaries and experience the possibility of initiating action for the greater good under the guidance of a supportive faculty member. The IdEA Program is a graduation requirement and ensures that every graduate has had at least one opportunity to apply learning to public problems in a concrete way.

Promoting a Culture of Civic Engagement

In addition to creating civic space and incorporating learning objectives, a third strategy in preparing students for a life of active democratic citizenship is our conscious promotion of a culture of civic engagement. Of key importance here are efforts to identify faculty who are committed to, and have experience in, civic and political life; as well as creating structures that motivate and guide student involvement. Many universities have political organizations and clubs but do not enjoy quality, diversity, and attendance at civic and political events on campus nor student engagement off campus. We believe that it is USD’s culture of civic engagement that makes a critical difference in education for democratic citizenship.

One practical way in which the department of political science advances its desire for engaged faculty who value civic life is by making public service experience a desired qualification in all faculty position announcements. Additionally, the candidate screening process weights this kind of experience in evaluating candidate credentials. Thus, it is no accident that we have a faculty committed to civic and political engagement.

In turn, faculty involvement in civic activity provides a bridge from the campus to the community and civic spaces in which political engagement and awareness can be promoted among our students. For example, a faculty member who chaired the local historic preservation commission organized a class in which students learned to survey historic structures and research local history in preparation for a successful application to place the community’s downtown on the National Register of Historic Places. Another example includes a professor who taught a conflict-resolution class by working with students to create a volunteer mediation nonprofit. In each case, faculty members served as town–gown bridges linking the campus to the community, and created structures that motivated and guided student civic engagement.


Universities can create a rich civic culture that prepares students to contribute to community life in powerful ways by paying careful attention to the creation and use of civic space, the utilization of course learning objectives, and by promoting a culture of engagement. To that end, faculty mentoring of public-regarding organizations, courses that promote engagement with important public problems, the promotion of a civic culture on campus, and facilities that invite formal and informal interaction are key strategies in USD’s efforts to provide its students with an education in democratic citizenship.


Putnam, R. 2000. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster

Anthony DeForest Molina is the director of the Master of Science in administrative studies, and assistant professor of political science; Elizabeth Theiss-Smith is an associate professor of political science, W.O. Farber Center for Civic Leadership; Richard Braunstein is the director of graduate studies and an associate professor of political science—all from University of South Dakota.

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