Far too often, civic engagement in college means volunteering or some form of service learning. Yet for all of the educational and civic value of these activities, civic engagement is best fostered by a rich array of programs and activities along a continuum from non-political to explicitly political. Activities such as raising money for charities must be balanced by learning about public policy issues and partisan divides. Beyond understanding, however, students also need to develop skills to engage in the world of politics and public policy. Students need both an understanding of political issues and to taught the skills of political engagement. As several researchers have noted, these can be taught successfully in non-partisan, non-ideological ways.
The Political Engagement Project (PEP) has the goal of developing a sense of political efficacy and duty on the part of undergraduates as well as a set of political skills that students will need as they engage with the political world. To do this, PEP campuses have infused political education and engagement tactics into a variety of disciplines and courses on campus and have made the tenets of political engagement central to the institutional framework of their campuses. The project documents the goals and pedagogies of the participating courses and programs, students’ perspectives on their experiences in the program, and the impact of these experiences on key dimensions of political development such as knowledge and understanding, active involvement, sense of political efficacy and identity, and skills of democratic participation.
Nine campuses and universities have integrated the Political Engagement Project into the institutional framework of their campuses. In 2007, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Political Engagement, explored the work of 21 courses and programs across the United States to achieve political engagement. The Political Engagement Project, taking the insights from that initial study of courses and programs, has tried to institutionalize the work as an entire campus effort to create a sense of institutional intentionality about civic and political outcomes. The key strategies that were reported in Educating for Democracy, including structured reflection, research and action projects, outside speakers, and external placements, are being used as key foundational pieces in the work of institutionalization.
In June 2010 PEP published Educating Students for Political Engagement: A Guide to Implementation and Assessment for Colleges and Universities. This monograph explores not only how to bring the Political Engagement Project (PEP) initiative to campus, but also the myriad approaches to campus political engagement. Edited by Johnny Goldfinger and John W. Presley, it's a description of the work of the PEP including lessons learned and detailed project and course descriptions. It also serves as an extension of the research presented in Educating for Democracy.
2011 saw the creation of the Political Engagement Project (PEP) Program of Excellence Award sponsored by The New York Times and the American Democracy Project. The purpose of this award is to recognize the distinctive excellence of PEP programs and to identify programs that can serve as best practice models for other AASCU campuses across the country. The 2011 New York Times PEP Program of Excellence Award winner was Illinois State University (ISU). “We are proud to be a sponsor of the new PEP Program of Excellence Award and we are excited about the work that the PEP campuses are doing. It was clear from the entry that Illinois State is engaged in substantial work and an innovator in the field,” Felice Nudelman, Executive Director of Education for The New York Times, wrote.
Director, The American Democracy Project