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We the People Interview Series: Interview with Stephanie South

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are conducting a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we interview intriguing people with different perspectives on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the fourth of many interviews that will be included in this series.

A Colorado native, Stephanie South was born and raised on the beautiful Western Slope and finished a B.A. in political science at the University of Northern Colorado in May 2010. She minored in journalism and legal studies and was actively involved on campus as a member of Student Senate, Greek life, the President’s Leadership Program, and the Honors Program. She also studied abroad in the south of France. During her third and final year of college, Stephanie focused her efforts largely on her undergraduate thesis and recently had a portion of her work published as “Making the Move from Shouting to Listening to Public Action: A Student Perspective on Millennials and Dialogue” in the Journal of Public Deliberation.

Stephanie’s collegiate experiences were both broad and diverse, instilling in her a passion for service, Middle Eastern politics, civic engagement, community, and travel.  She spends her free time taking photos, planning trips, working out, and reading Time magazine.  Stephanie is currently exploring overseas volunteer opportunities with hopes of pursuing a year of service post-Fellowship. She eventually plans to attend law school and is extremely interested in advocating for social justice issues.

Stephanie South

American Democracy Project (ADP): Why were you interested in civic engagement?

Stephanie South (SS): In my three years at the University of Northern Colorado, I was a part of the University Honors Program. During my second year of college, the Center for Honors, Scholars, and Leadership, which houses the program, was in the midst of a transition and beginning to shift its focus to incorporate civic engagement more fully. The then director of the University Honors Program, Kaye Holman, and the director of the Center, Michael Kimball, encouraged me to explore the concept of civic engagement in higher education for a possible thesis topic, but at the time, as I was wrapping up classes and preparing to move to Washington, D.C. for the summer, I was not fully enthusiastic about identifying the subject for my thesis, which I had been putting off for a good month or so.

However, before I got on the road for D.C., Mike gave me a copy of Harry Boyte’s The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference to read on the 25-hour road trip; not long after starting it, I was hooked. In the months that followed, I worked with Mike to narrow my topic, and somehow he convinced Harry to sign on as an external advisor, which I was both honored by and thrilled about.

My passion for civic engagement and my interest in the nearly yearlong project I undertook for my University Honors Program thesis were a direct result of Kaye’s and Mike’s willingness to mentor and push me and, of course, Harry’s book.

ADP: What did you learn about public work as a way to shift Millennials from “shouting” to “co-creation”?

SS: Boyte’s work was extremely influential not only in my writing but in my own life as a student. I found his take on democracy—his public work philosophy—a perfect expression of how I thought humankind should function, of how I thought students at a university should function. I remember a piece Boyte once wrote where he quoted a student he had interviewed, and the student said something about an essential missing piece in the lives of Millennials, a disconnect from their communities.

As a student who was actively and perhaps overly involved in my campus, I did not identify with this, but I saw so many students around me that did. They were simply passing through their college experience, and for most of them, despite popular opinion, it was not the result of apathy. It was disengagement perpetuated by a broken system of higher education. The break I speak of, although I know there are more, is in regard to how students are taught in the classroom and what they are taught about. Students I conducted focus groups with, as well as interviewed one-on-one, were not being engaged by teachers talking to instead of speaking with them. They were tired of one-way conversations had by PowerPoint. They were disappointed with the lack of real world application and context they were learning with their subject matter.

It began to dawn on me that students were being treated like consumers with all sorts of propaganda simply being shouted at them. What they really wanted and what America really needs is for students to be treated like citizens; for students to become stakeholders in their own lives and communities, to translate their professional purpose into one that exists for public benefit, to become problem solvers and co-creators and co-producers of public goods.

ADP: What did your experiences and what you learned at UNCO have to say about the broader movement for civic empowerment and educational change?

SS: If American colleges and universities want to get back to their roots and truly make higher education about more than getting students in and out the door with a degree as fast as possible, then they must answer the call for community. Our institutions must work not only to educate students on how the collective can be created and on the power of it, but they must foster opportunities for the intentional conversations that allow community to thrive. And, if this generation, the Millennials, is to truly reach its potential and make a return to the commonwealth, then higher education must give them the proper instruction to be citizens. They must not only teach them how to utilize their collegiate experiences and chose career path to contribute to their communities, but they must empower students to do so by giving them a voice, and, therefore, a stake in the commonwealth.

However, this is a two-way street, and if higher education institutions are willing to give students the stage, students have to step of to the mic[rophone]. This conversation cannot be a monologue; both parties have to add their voice to the exchange. As a result of my thesis and the conversations I had with students, professors, and administrators during the course of my research, I believe that higher education reform in the sense that I see it is entirely possible if both university professionals and students commit to making the move from “shouting” to “listening.”

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