Collaborating with Graduate Students to Enhance Civic Engagement: Lessons from Organizing an Interdisciplinary Panel Discussion

Georgia Nilsson, Lucas Alward, Jaydeep Bhatia, Sean Stephens, Adam Irish

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Summer 2016 issue.

The graduate student experience risks becoming a monastic existence of classes, reading, and research necessary to master a literature, pass comps, and write a thesis. But there exist a number of vibrant communities that graduate students could benefit from interacting with beyond classroom, library, and departmental walls. In this essay, we review a civic engagement activity (CEA) to explore civic engagement at the graduate student level. We begin by noting the benefits CEAs bring to the graduate student experience. Next, we provide a case study of a recent CEA that drew a crowd of over 250 students, local media attention, and attendance by citizens of the local community. Lastly, we analyze our CEA experience to draw out general lessons.

The Benefits of Civic Engagement for Graduate Students A growing body of literature points to the benefits of CEAs for undergraduate students. We contend that CEAs benefit graduate students as well. CEAs help graduate students explore

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

the nexus of research and policy, learn professional and organizational skills, and draw connections between disciplines. These benefits further graduate student education as well as make graduate students more competitive candidates for future study and employment.

Firsthand understanding of the research and practice nexus is difficult to achieve. By planning a CEA, however, graduate students must ask how their studies connect to real life policy concerns, whether this might mean, for example, mobilizing care for the indigent or informing the public. CEAs also move graduate students from understanding to imple-mentation. CEAs unify undergrads, grad students, faculty, and the community in one constructive act. The high stakes and immediate feedback of CEAs provide a venue that puts graduate student knowledge to work. Moreover, the walls of academic disciplines crumble when planning a CEA. By their nature, CEAs require engagement with a variety of community concerns and questions beyond the scope of any one field. Thus, CEAs open graduate students up to interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation.

Case Study: An Interdisciplinary-Panel Dis-cussion of the Global Refugee Crisis. California State University Chico’s Council of Graduate Students (COGS) is an organization of graduate students whose mission is to support graduate studies. In 2015, we (Nilsson, Alward, Bhatia, and Stephens) were selected to lead COGS. Our goal was strengthening the intellectual discourse on campus. We wanted to provoke an informed discussion of contemporary important events among graduate students.

Early in fall 2015, we tentatively settled on the topic of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe because the media was saturated with reporting on the refugees, most of which sensationalized the issue. At the time, three of us were pursing Masters in Political Science, so we approached a recent departmental hire, Dr. Irish, a specialist in international law, about forming a panel to discuss the topic with graduate students. Following discussions with Alward, Dr. Irish counseled us to invite professors from different disciplines to participate and open the event to the campus community. Dr. Irish’s support for the panel created momentum, shifting a discussion among graduate students to a larger CEA.

To build the panel, we reached out to professors in a variety of departments. As a recent hire, Dr. Irish knew others would jump at the opportunity to establish their presence on campus, so he reached out to other recent hires. Two weeks later, we had six panelists, including three recently hired professors and two experts in international security. Because we then risked weighting the discussion too heavily towards international security, we contacted the panel candidates and candidly outlined our concerns. As a result, one of the security panelists readily conceded his participation to his colleague and this left us with five panelists with expertise in international security, criminal justice, sociology, Spanish, and international law.2 We selected Dr. Bhatia to moderate the discussion and drafted a mix of general and specific questions with the intent of pulling panelists into a discussion. We then sent these questions to Dr. Irish and, building on his feedback, we circulated the questions before the event.

To promote the event, we emailed Deans, campus organizations, and the leaders of student groups. We also reached out to departments potentially willing to offer students extra credit for attending. We then created a flyer and posted it across campus and in local businesses a few weeks in advance of the event. Finally, we contacted local media representatives to advertise the panel discussion to the local community. The morning of the panel, Dr. Irish was interviewed by a local news station about the event as part of a report on the refugee crisis. Notably, on the night of the panel discussion, we inserted the word “Global” into the panel title to capture the varied origins of refugees. We also printed pamphlets with QR codes corresponding to humanitarian organizations (e.g. UNICEF and UNHCR), leaving them at each seat for attendees. The panel discussion was a lively and the panelists readily interacted with one another. The assembled crowd required extra seating and stayed throughout the Q&A.

Lessons Learned from this CEA

From the case study above, we found that three key elements of graduate student – faculty collaboration on CEAs contribute to their success: 1) targeted marketing and documentation, 2) the autonomy to create, and 3) logistical support to expand CEAs.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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