Effective and Reflective Citizens: Xavier Students Learn Path Toward Healthy Democracy

By Sean Comer, Government Relations Director, Xavier University

 Above (L-R): Shelby Lauter, Taylor Liggins, Martin O’Malley, Gil Guthrie, Meagan Gosney & Rachel Gosney Take on Iowa in January 2016 (photo courtesy of SHelby Lauter)

Above (L-R): Shelby Lauter, Taylor Liggins, Martin O’Malley, Gil Guthrie, Meagan Gosney & Rachel Gosney Take on Iowa in January 2016 (photo courtesy of SHelby Lauter)

Every year, many students enrolled in the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public (PPP) Honors Program at Xavier University engage in political campaigns throughout the Greater Cincinnati, OH region as part of their coursework.

PPP is an innovative and rigorous undergraduate program that focuses on the unifying concept of 'the public sphere' in democratic societies. Past and current students differ greatly in their political ideologies and alumni have served in both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. While amenable to liberals and conservatives alike, the highly selective program challenges students to analyze, critique and defend their views.

As sophomores, PPP students are required to take a class called “Mass Media and Politics,” designed to directly engage them in the political and public policy processes. They work not on the fringes, but in the thick of races, connecting directly to candidates, issues, voters and the public, who ultimately decide the outcome and are at the forefront of the political process.

Students are intentionally placed on local campaigns, giving them the opportunity to work hand-in-hand, on the ground with field directors, campaign managers and the candidates themselves. Unlike high profile, professionally-run national races (e.g. presidential, Senate or House campaigns), local races are often left to small, passionate teams. In Cincinnati, Xavier students become part of those teams. These local campaign operations give students much more than an afternoon of canvassing or an hour spent working at a phone bank. They are depended upon by the candidate for important responsibilities that they can later leverage as powerful and impressive skills on their resumes.

 ABOVE: PPP Alumni Heyra Avila & Shelby Lauter with Sean Comer (photo courtesy of Shelby Lauter)

ABOVE: PPP Alumni Heyra Avila & Shelby Lauter with Sean Comer (photo courtesy of Shelby Lauter)

PPP students split their time between their internship work in the field and studying campaign strategy in the classroom. They learn how to present election data, research fundraising prospects, design media messaging, and structure efforts to “Get Out the Vote.” The strategies they learn in the classroom are then applied to the candidate or issue that they are working on in the field. The course aims to combine experience and theory so that students can put each to the test.

Outside of the classroom, students learn how to identify which doors to knock on to help their candidates win in their districts. They attend fundraising events with donors from their regions, while also developing an understanding of how to identify future donors and build a fundraising campaign. They distribute campaign literature while thinking about the best ways to organize and deliver messages to voters via platforms that include everything from yard signs and flyers to the creation of social media accounts.

When the dust settles and Election Day arrives, the students move from the street and the classroom to the TV studio. For many years, Xavier’s PPP students have provided live election coverage from the Hamilton County Board of Elections in a program called “Beyond the Yard Signs,” on Cincinnati’s local government access channel. Students report results and provide in depth analysis of the candidates and races they’ve worked on throughout the semester. No one in the city knows these races better than the PPP students. They are quizzed by hosts live on the air and are expected to provide insight derived from their firsthand experience in the community coupled with their understanding of current and past elections.

The goal of the course isn’t to graduate campaign operatives, but to graduate effective and reflective citizens. While the PPP sophomores are expected to work hard with a goal of getting their candidate elected or issue passed, they’re also taught the importance of the citizen in the electoral process. They are challenged to think about the needs of the voters, identify barriers to voting, and understand the importance and privilege of this civic duty.

Although I’ve always been interested in national politics, I was not politically active in high school, and I really didn’t know how I could participate other than voting. The PPP program at Xavier not only provided an avenue for me to further explore my political interests academically, but it also taught me how to channel these interests into active participation. Through Sean Comer’s “Mass Media and Politics” course, I gained practical knowledge and experience by studying and working on local campaigns and policy issues. His course, along with Dr. John Fairfield’s class on the history of civic philosophy, provided me with a deeper understanding of my role as a citizen in the “public sphere” and led me to develop a publicly-oriented mindset. This mentality stuck with me as I pursued internships in college, and later, as I sought my first post-graduate job. My experiences in PPP drew me to AJCU and to Washington, DC, where I felt I could continue my political engagement and service to others. Since moving to DC, I’ve carried the PPP spirit with me by volunteering as a canvasser and phone-banker for Congressional races. Above all, this program instilled me with a drive to remain involved, wherever my career may take me, and to strive to be an effective and reflective citizen.
— By Shelby Lauter, Xavier University (’18)
Executive Assistant to the President, AJCU

As part of the “Mass Media and Politics” semester, students simultaneously take a history course focused on the construction of “the public” and the history of civic philosophies in the United States. “Campaign politics” demonstrates the construction of our political system today and how to pull the levers to make a difference, while “Constructing the Public” demonstrates change over time and how, throughout our history, individuals chose to pull those levers and shift entire systems. Things don’t just happen: people make decisions and act. Throughout the course, students are asked to consider alternative viewpoints, to challenge their own views, and seek to understand ‘the other,’ whether that means politics, gender, race or economic status.

After the sophomore year experience, many PPP students move into paid campaign roles before finishing their four years of undergraduate work at Xavier. PPP now has ten years of graduates, many of whom are working or have worked in a wide range of political offices, from Cincinnati City Council, to the Ohio Statehouse, and to the White House in Washington, D.C.

For graduates who decide that political campaign work is not for them, the experience gained in the class deepens their understanding of how our electoral and, in turn, governmental system, works. Many PPP alumni are now working at the corporate or community level, grounded in understanding the importance of and responsibility to this civic role that is vital to the future of our society.

Moving beyond the confines of campus, talking to people outside of their comfort zone, and seeking to understand different points of view allow Xavier PPP students to expand their education beyond the classroom. They become better educated citizens and their knowledge benefits the global community they join as graduates, whether they stay in Cincinnati, head back home, gravitate to our nation’s capital, or seek new experiences abroad. Xavier’s PPP honors program prepares them for a life as men and women for and with others.