Politics and the Virtues of Public Discourse

This year’s presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been described as many things: contentious, awkward, controversial, bizarre. But perhaps the best descriptor of this election is this: It’s personal. Like never before, Americans are vehemently debating, disagreeing and disrespecting each other on social media, and in person, in ways that cut at our moral core. It’s personal and political, which means things can quickly get out of hand.

Now imagine being a college student who is voting for the first time.  It’s as if you are wading hip-deep in a murky mess of political polarization, looking for the right candidate to pluck out. And with so much to disseminate, emotions are running high. Reasoned, mature voices who are modeling civility may seem few and far between to rookie voters navigating such muddy waters.

Vox Populi Logo

Enter Vox Populi — five forums featuring interdisciplinary panels organized by the Office of Student Development. Using the Hope-authored document called the Virtues of Public Discourse as a guide, Vox Populi, meaning “the voice of the people,” tackles weighty topics that revolve around this dramatic election and seasons them heavily with five virtues needed to make discussion and dialogue both respectful and constructive: humility, hospitality, patience, courage, and honesty.

“We are using our Virtues of Public Discourse document to frame each event because we have a responsibility to our Hope community to see this election in both a more intelligent and holistic way.”

A Vox Populi panel discussion entitled “Could Honest Abe Make It in Politics Today? Why Politicians Lie and Why We’re Okay with It.”  From left to right, Dr. David Ryden of the political science department, Dr. Fred Johnson of the history department, Dr. James Herrick of the communication department, student director of Vox Populi Kathleen Muloma, and Chris Bohle of the student development office.

“We are not having CNN or Fox News screaming matches here,” said Chris Bohle, associate director of student life and main organizer of Vox Populi. “We are using our Virtues of Public Discourse document to start and frame each event because we have a responsibility to our Hope community to see this election in both a more intelligent and holistic way. That means we must help students see what being an informed voter, a critically thinking voter, and a civil voter should look.”

Vox Populi is student-driven, Bohle points out, as eight leaders from campus organizations* choose the topics very early in the academic year “that they needed and wanted to hear about.” Faculty and staff from various departments bring their experience to the panel discussions which have delved into party affiliation and Christianity, social media wars, post-truth politics, and politicized familial dissension.

Each of these tough topics seems somewhat more approachable within the intimate confines of the DeWitt Studio Theatre, when sagacious faculty and staff offer their expertise in both relational and concise ways. But it is the Virtues of Public Discourse that are the true stars and calming influence of Vox Populi. “If we set our gaze locally and exercise these virtues with our families and friends in our communities, then we can start to change the overall landscape because we’ve practiced in trying times,” said Dr. David Ryden, professor of political science and chair of the department.

So, talk politics and voice your views — remembering to be humble, hospitable, brave, patient, and honest — as if our nation depended on it.

“Do we need documents (like the Virtues of Public Discourse) to guide us?” asked Dr. James Herrick, the Guy VanderJagt Professor of Communication, at a panel on honesty in the election. “Yes, because these are not intuitive and we need reminders. Documents such as the Virtues of Public Discourse constitute us as a community and remind us of our standards when it feels inconvenient to live them out. Without such a statement of what we stand for, we run the risk of becoming a tactical community rather than a conversational one.”

The Virtues of Public Discourse fully engaged and on display in Vox Populi set an example for Hope students on how to civilly express their political views when all about them, bombastic and concerning conversations abound. Kathleen Muloma appreciated that most about the forums.

“Vox Populi has taught me that healthy, empassioned, educated conversations are possible,” observes Muloma, a sophomore chemistry major with a biochemistry emphasis and student director of Vox Populi. “We are not without hope for having honest discussions without pulling out hair or insulting the other person. Every time students attended, it reminded me that I am not alone in my desire for these healthy conversations, and that Hope students do want to talk about the controversial topics and are seeking opportunities to learn and get better in the context of the the Christian faith.”

Now with that hopeful sentiment, go ahead and talk politics, voice your views, and like Kathleen Muloma and others who have been enlightened by Vox Populi, remember to be humble, hospitable, brave, patient, and honest – as if our nation depended on it.

*Writer’s note:  Vox Populi’s topics and programming were the brainstorming and organizational results of the following students and these groups: Kathleen Muloma, Student Director; Derek Chen, Hope Republicans Representative; Irene Gerrish, Hope Democrats Representative; Joseph McClusky, Residential Life Representative; CJ Proos, Student Congress Representative; Julia Fulton, Political Science Department Representative; Terah Ryan, SAC Representative, and, Mark Brice, Assistant Director of Residential Life and Housing.

The Time in the In-Between: Thriving in Transition to Hope

The time between high school graduation and college enrollment is fraught with excitement and anticipation for almost every incoming freshman. It’s also a time filled with more questions and some anxiety, too. “How do I know the exact classes I should be taking?” “What will my college professors expect of me?” “Who will be my friends?” “Where do I get my ID photo taken again?”

Each question is valid and not uncommon nor unexpected to be asked during that time in the “in-between;” those 12 weeks from May 1 (enrollment deposit day) to the end of August (new-student-orientation weekend). And it is exactly for that time period that Hope College has been developing new summer initiatives, dovetailed with its already established fall first-year programming, to help incoming students transition to college.

New student advising
Dr. Chad Carlson, assistant professor of kinesiology, conducts new student advising.

Since the summer of 2014, Hope has instituted – under the direction of both Dr. Ryan White, director of advising, and Chris Bohle, associate director of student development – two programs that provide greater communication and support to soon-to-be Hope freshmen. New Student Advising Days are half-day summer campus events that are open to all freshman and prepare students for their academic transition to college by facilitating class registration and introducing students to academic advisors, other staff, and programs. The Summer Bridge Program is an invitation-only, living-and-learning experience that supports those who would benefit for earlier exposure to college life. Students stay a week on campus in mid-August, take a one-credit college writing course, experience cultural aspects of campus life, have meetings with peer and faculty mentors, and engage key institutional personnel and offices.

Each experience helps incoming students become more academically and culturally prepared for their first day at Hope.

Summer Bridge
From left to right, Dr. Marla Lunderberg, Dr. Ryan White, senior Alexis-Simone Rivers, Chris Bohle, and junior Diana Cortes

Each experience helps incoming students become more academically and culturally prepared for their first day at Hope.

Bohle and White, along with Dr. Marla Lunderberg, associate professor of English and director of Hope’s FOCUS program, and Alexis-Simone Rivers, student-director of First Year Transitions, were recently selected, after being vetted through a competitive, blind-review application process, to present about these Hope programs at the 35th annual National Conference on the First Year Experience at the University of South Carolina. While they are quick to explain that both of these initiatives are not novel to higher education, the way that they’ve been constructed at Hope is.

“We use current Hope students to build and support these programs,” says White. “That’s what makes us unique. We did not use a top-down approach with administrators only planning out each program and saying, ‘this is how it is going to be.’ We wanted peer-leaders. We wanted our current students walking alongside incoming freshmen. That is really the Hope way. Our students are good leaders so we let them lead.”

‘We listen to the concerns of the students and identify how we can best help them or direct them to different resources on campus,” adds Rivers, a senior international studies major. “We’re not only a director or leader to these students, but many times we often become an unofficial mentor once the school year begins. That personal mentoring connection with the students is how I believe student directors make the biggest difference…. Also, our roles as student directors are very influential in the fact that incoming students are able to see how we were once in their position and now we are leaders on campus.”

“College is one of those things every incoming freshman has not experienced yet so they don’t know what to expect,” says Bohle. “A lot of times new students don’t know what to ask. With our summer initiatives and other first-year experiences, we want to answer some of their unspoken questions and help to normalize an understanding of expectations. “

Peer-advisors, alongside First-Year Seminar faculty, talk incoming freshman through several aspects of class selection and general education, as well as major requirements during three New Student Advising Days in June. The Hope students relay classroom experiences that were beneficial for them and could be for new students, too. “The big thing about new student advising is we find incoming freshmen are leaving less anxious about registration and feeling more connected to campus, and our students are a big reason for that,” says White.

Hope freshman Andrea Garcia, a participant in the 2015 Summer Bridge program

For the Summer Bridge, Bohle says Hope students who work with the program are primary points of contact between those enrolled – 20 the first summer and 30 this summer – and the teaching faculty. “With Summer Bridge, our current students function as RAs (resident assistants) in Cook Hall and TAs (teaching assistants) in class; they give extended tours of Hope and Holland; they serve as peer mentors and work side by side with new students on a service project; they debrief the new students each night to hear what they are learning or concerned about and bring it back to us,” says Bohle. “Hope students are there, walking through the experience with Summer Bridge students in a way that we (faculty and staff) cannot.”

Each summer initiative is a forward-looking, Hope-strength-based experience that leads into bigger things to come, namely, Hope’s four-day freshman orientation. Orientation is held just prior to the first day of fall classes. Additional year-long academic and cultural support is to come on campus, especially from First Year Seminar faculty and in programs such as Phelps Scholars, Day 1, and Time to Serve. But in the time in the in-between, incoming students are already having meaningful experiences preparing them to be full-fledged college students in the fall.

“College is one of those things every incoming freshman has not experienced yet so they don’t know what to expect,” says Bohle. “A lot of times new students don’t know what to ask. With our summer initiatives and other first-year experiences, we want to answer some of their unspoken questions and help to normalize an understanding of expectations. Across the board, we feel we’re doing that. These summer programs really have been positive things.”