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WFU professors find ways to engage college students in politics

February 19, 2008

The youth vote is considered critical to the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.  This year roughly 44 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 will account for more than 20 percent of eligible voters, but this age group has historically had low turnout at the polls. 

Two Wake Forest University professors interested in improving voter turnout among college students conducted the Democracy Fellows project, a four-year study on how to engage young people in the political process.  The results of the study are compiled in “Speaking of Politics:  Preparing College Students for Democratic Citizenship through Deliberative Dialogue” published recently by the Kettering Foundation Press.

"We were concerned about the lack of political participation by young voters,” said Katy Harriger, professor and chair of the political science department at Wake Forest University.  “Studies found that young people had trouble finding their way into a political discussion, partly because of the polarized debate you see on television with people just screaming at each other, and young people don’t find that an attractive way to become involved.”  Harriger and Jill McMillan, professor emerita of communication, launched the Democracy Fellows project in the fall of 2001 to see if another way of talking about politics would improve young people’s engagement in democratic citizenship.

At the beginning of the study, Harriger and McMillan found that freshmen were turned off by politics and felt more attuned to community service rather than political activism.  “they feel they can't change federal policy to help end world hunger, but they can help feed the family down the street,” Harriger said.

Through a series of projects, the students learned how to prepare issue fact sheets and moderate a discussion, and realized their own power to influence issues and the democratic process.  One of the concerns that arose in early discussions was the lack of a community space on campus; a student-run coffeehouse emerged as a solution.  Another set of discussions resulted in the revamping of the freshman orientation process.  In the third year of the project, the students were pushed outside the comfort zone of campus deliberations as they researched and organized a community forum with Winston-Salem community leaders on the ‘real-world’ issue of urban sprawl. 

McMillan said the Democracy Fellows embraced deliberative dialogue “as political dialogue different from the way we see it practiced in contemporary politics.  Deliberative dialogue places a premium on civil talk with other individuals but also asks participants to talk about what is important to them, forces the discussion of trade-offs and requires action.”

After four years, students involved in the study were more involved in traditional political venues, more attuned to the responsibilities of citizenship, more analytical and critical of political processes, more confident in their ability to make a difference and more inclined to talk about the greater good rather than the personal benefit of political involvement.  Not only that, Harriger and McMillan found that their students expressed broader applications of democratic dialogue.  “And this just totally surprised us,” said McMillan.  “These students began to talk about deliberation far beyond politics.  They began to talk about how they were doing better in their classes, that they felt more confident to talk in their classes, they were more comfortable leading their student organizations, and several of them mentioned that they could talk to their families better because they had these deliberative dialogue skills.”

One of the participants commented, “I know I can make a difference when I graduate from Wake Forest .… I can take my knowledge of deliberation to the place I work, I can also teach my children …. I will participate in social discussions more and I will encourage everyone I know to do so as well.”

Harriger and McMillan found that even limited exposure to deliberative dialogue appeared to expand participants’ attitudes toward civic involvement.  For that reason, they purposefully kept the Democracy Fellows project low-budget and low-tech, so organizations other than four-year liberal arts colleges can adopt the process for their own use.

Press Contacts:

Audrey Fannin
(336) 758-5237

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237

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