American Democracy Project unites FHSU community with Hays community

Illustrating the need for an undertaking that carries a name like the American Democracy Project, Christie Brungardt, instructor of leadership studies at Fort Hays State University, poses a question she often asks students.

"I ask them which do they want. Would they rather have a college degree to make money or would they rather have the college education?"

A degree, she explains, is just a piece of paper that can serve as a ticket to a job and more money, but the education can shape a student into a well-rounded person and a thoughtful citizen. Ideally, she said, they would see the need for both.

Brungardt, along with Dr. Larry Gould, Provost and interim dean of the College of Business and Leadership, are heading up the American Democracy Project at FHSU, making the university one of only two colleges in Kansas to be a part of the ADP, which in its first year has more than 160 universities nationwide participating.

The ADP is a collaboration between the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the New York Times.

Brungardt said that by targeting undergraduate students at universities that are members of AASCU, civic engagement is promoted and established, making the students more well-rounded citizens.

"Civic engagement is defined as working to make a difference in the civic life of our community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills and motivation to make that difference," Brungardt said, reading from the book Educating Citizens. "It's promoting the quality of life in that community through political and non-political actions."

Brungardt clasps the book in her hand, calling it the "Bible of civic engagement," and laughs.

This statement, though tongue-and-cheek, is not far from the truth. Brungardt and Gould have established a Vision Team, a committee composed of FHSU faculty, staff, students and soon Virtual College and community members. Each member received a copy of the book to assist in the education process during the monthly meetings. The book discusses civic engagement and the different ways to become involved.

"So many people get the impression that civic engagement is just getting people involved," Brungardt said. "But it involves many different activities and the opportunity to reflect on each experience."

When selecting individuals for the Vision Team, Brungardt said, she and Gould picked diverse representatives to educate and lead others in the university and community towards civic engagement.

"When you do any type of project that involves collaborative leadership, you need diverse people involved in order to get the most out of it," she said. "We hope that we're laying a firm foundation through the Vision Team for something that is important and will be an asset to everybody."

FHSU's involvement in the ADP project will last for three years, during which a "campus conversation" can begin. Faculty will be encouraged to include civic engagement in their courses and programs, which in return will take it to the community through organizations and student-oriented community projects.

"I think that by being involved in the ADP, students will be more aware of what goes on in the community," Brungardt said. "I also think that it's a way for the community and the college to work more closely together, gain a broader perspective and become more engaged with one-another.

"More and more people also need to see and understand that so many good things happen in this community because of the students who go to FHSU," Brungardt said.

"These students are the future of democracy and civic action."

Recently, two ADP webcasts -- a seminar broadcast via the Internet -- have been offered to university members as well as the Hays community. In late November, FHSU hosted two webcasts which featured former Vice President Al Gore discussing democracy and its relationship to race and the media.

More recently, the webcast "A Southern Town," which was broadcast to the community, FHSU and other ADP colleges, dealt with racial oppression in the 1960s and the actions that individuals in one community took on behalf of justice and democracy.

"Our hope is that we will be able to do a similar webcast on our campus some day," Brungardt said. "I would love to get something originated here that we could share with other ADP campuses."

Brungardt said that, ultimately, she hopes the program will have a major impact on shaping the future of students and providing them with essential life skills, which are only being offered at FHSU.

"By instituting this program, this really sets us apart from our competitors," Brungardt said. "It also brings us back to the origins of higher education as institutions for educating citizens in support of democracy."

"Hopefully we'll show the region and even the state that we're not just in it for career preparation. We really care about our students as individuals and we want to benefit them with competencies that will last them for the rest of their lives."

"We're hoping to touch everyone at Fort Hays in some manner to reinvigorate the essential purpose of institutions of higher education as civic learning organizations," Brungardt said.

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