Davis & Elkins College freshmen and first-year students recently concluded the First-Year Symposium - an intensive three-week session on democracy that involved interactive exercises, lectures and application of critical thinking and creative skills. This was the first such program for the college as a new approach to its Winter Term.
Through team work, panel discussions, projects and participation in a simulated legislative session, students learned about the skills, practices and processes that enable citizens to make a difference through active participation in a variety of democratic processes.
"The experience shaped me to want to become more involved in democracy," said Jessica Williams, an elementary education major from Shenandoah Junction.
Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick teaches student Matthew Kokoska, of Phoenix, Md., the ‘West Virginia handshake.’
During the session, which ran Jan. 7 through 25, students were assigned to one of 22 small groups in which members selected leadership and assigned duties.
Students commented that this structure and the path it followed through the session helped them recognize how democracy intertwines with daily and academic interactions.
"Leadership isn't about barking orders," said Trevor Wratchford, an English and history major from Moorefield, who was the leader of his group. "It's about facilitating and being there."
Another student in the group, Wes Anderson, an environmental science major from Buckhannon, said he had been a leader in his high school athletic career. This time around, he says he learned about leadership from observing the actions of other leaders.
During the first week, group leaders helped decide which team members would attend democracy-focused lectures presented by D&E faculty and guest speakers, including D&E Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Joe Roidt, Hanover College Professor of Communications Dr. Barbara Garvey, West Virginia Delegate Denise Campbell and West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick. Students also watched and discussed popular films with political themes, and created posters reflecting the role democracy plays in society.
In the second week, students put topics from the lectures into practice as they participated in simulated sessions of the West Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate. Fulfilling duties of chamber leaders and county representatives, they researched constituent demographics, wrote and researched topics for bills and argued their points and counterpoints. Agency representatives from throughout the state participated in caucuses dealing with children's health care, entrepreneurship, extractive industry, travel and tourism, drug prevention, education, sustainable energy and women's issues.
An overnight trip to West Virginia's capital city in the final week gave the students an opportunity for experiential learning with tours of the Governor's Mansion, state Capitol building, Clay Center and Cultural Center. It also provided a time for reflection on the previous weeks' exercises and celebration of individual and team accomplishments.
Students identified their participation in a mock session in the House chambers as a highlight of the trip.
"It was us, but it seemed like it was so real," said Ben Pond, of Sheffield, England.
The idea for the First-Year Symposium emerged during the summer of 2011. D&E leaders decided to embrace the challenge laid out in "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future," the 2012 report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. The report documents the "civic deficit" facing the United States and challenges colleges and universities to edaucate their students to serve more capably and knowledgeably as citizens. Davis & Elkins hopes that its own initiative will provide valuable information for other colleges and universities wishing to strengthen their commitment to civic learning and engagement.
Academic leaders at D&E plan to continue the democracy theme for the 2014 First-Year Symposium.
More information about the college is available at www.dewv.edu or 304-637-1243.