Realizing Our Potential as Active Citizens
By Madison Pettit, senior majoring in communication studies at Gustavus Adolphus College
“The class inspired me to be an agent of change for the rest of my life, beyond just the one semester.” Matthew Wasson’s reflection about his Public Discourse experience is one that many students share. Throughout the semester, students actively engage outside of the classroom, thoughtfully take action as citizens of their communities, and gain marketable skills for the future. They leave Public Discourse changed both inside and out.
My personal Public Discourse journey began in fall 2010. I regarded the class as a mandatory requirement and worried that my project would “fail.” I soon realized the class was about much more than the outcome of a single project: it would be a significant influence on me and my education.
For my project, I chose to help improve residential life at a local nursing home by initiating student visits from a nearby school. My project entailed strategic thinking, numerous phone calls, and speeches to the entire staff of an elementary school. I had to research and develop solutions, negotiating actions that were satisfying to all parties involved. I was pushed far beyond my comfort zone, but I now regard myself as an agent of change: someone who does not wait for others to act but steps up as a responsible member of her community.
As I spoke recently with my classmates, I realized that aspects of our experiences with Public Discourse were universal. Regardless of our projects’ outcomes, we all left the course empowered with newfound realizations about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities.
For Brittany Knutson, the process of researching a problem and its solution taught her to appreciate her role in community as well as diversity in the world around her. “My project began as a search for solutions to the economic and other problems that Native Americans face on reservations; however, following a question from a peer, I realized I needed to shift my focus to raising awareness of a culture that is an integral part of our diverse community,” said Brittany.
That question, regarding Brittany’s status as a non-Native American who cannot know Native experiences firsthand, brought her project into focus and created a clear, attainable goal. “I realized that community is something in which I am integrated. Although the problems Native Americans face seemingly do not affect me, they are members of a community in which I have a stake. In response, I decided to create a conversation about Native American culture on campus.”
Blia Xiong’s project lasted much longer than one semester. While working in Minneapolis to help an immigrant community whose businesses were adversely affected by a long-term construction project, Blia contacted an organization that later offered her a summer internship. Through it, Blia gained a new perspective on community and a sense of purpose.
“I realized that as a member of my community, I am the one who needs to take initiative and get things done instead of waiting for someone to do it for me. I look for solutions now when I see problems,” said Blia.
Matthew Wasson’s project successfully implemented a recycling program in his local school district. His sense of accomplishment is symbolic of the power Public Discourse has to reshape student outlook and instill a sense of self and purpose.
“Public Discourse has empowered me to talk more confidently, and the time-management and project-management skills [I learned] are responsible for my success in college. . . . I focus more on the problems I see in my surroundings now rather than just ignoring them, and I focus on what can be done. I ask bigger questions and am confident in asking the ‘whys,’” said Matthew.
As our generation moves into the future, we face many daunting problems. Diversity of ideas and experience are critical to maintaining vibrant democracy. Experiences like Public Discourse are a critical step toward realizing our power to face and overcome problems while working with communities and learning to coexist with our neighbors.
Editor’s note: For more about Gustavus Adolphus’s Public Discourse Requirement, see Martin Lang and Leila Brammer’s article in this issue.