Using Work-Study Internships to Promote Civic Education & Student Leadership Development

Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend, ebennion@iusb.edu


This essay was originally published in the Political Science Educator’s Spring 2020 issue.


As American Democracy Project Director at Indiana University South Bend, I plan dozens of events and engage hundreds of participants each semester. The goal of the project is to enhance students’ civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, while also providing critical political education and information to the community-at-large. The American Democracy Project (ADP) seeks to create college graduates who are capable of making a meaningful difference in their communities. Employing students as interns who work to plan, publicize, host, and assess campus and community events is one way to achieve this objective. Students become both the purveyors of, and beneficiaries of, civic learning and democratic engagement opportunities across our region.

The American Democracy Project discourages students from substituting voluntarism or direct service for political engagement. The ADP promotes a both/and approach, rather than an either/or approach to volunteering and political engagement. At IU South Bend, the political science department serves a critical role in helping students to understand that using the political process is a critical component of creating long-term, sustainable changes that improve people’s lives. Political science students who work with the American Democracy Project learn how important elected officials are in shaping the policies that influence their lives.

The ADP hosts candidate forums and debates for local, state, and national races, including: school board, mayor, city council, county council, county commission, sheriff, prosecutor, probate judge, state house, state senate, and U.S. House. Meet the Candidates forums include additional candidates for township trustee, township advisory board, treasurer, surveyor, auditor, city clerk, county clerk, and more. We work in three cities and two counties to host events both on and off campus. Students meet political leaders, party leaders, and community activists. They network with the leadership of local civic organizations and learn about politics and policy at all levels of government. They are able to compare cities with different political makeups and citizen demographics to gain new insights regarding the linkages between public opinion and public policy and the role of political competition and cooperation across the region.

In addition to live candidate debates, the ADP hosts watch parties for televised U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates, presidential candidate debates, State of the Union speeches, and other significant political events, including an election night results watch party. Students decorate the facility, and prepare event-themed score cards, Bingo cards, photo booths, button-making stations, and refreshment centers.

Other events include civic leadership academies, national issues forums, informal pizza and politics discussions, voter registration and education drives, and service projects. For example, students organize a diversity reading program in local primary schools focused on empowerment, non-violent protest, civic leadership civil rights, and social change. Student interns give short presentations, perform community service, recruit volunteers, grant media interviews, decorate event venues, prepare event programs, and do the background research needed to prepare participant handouts and answer participant and journalist questions. Students also provide all of the technical support and data entry required for the ADP’s online voter guide.

The ADP internship allows students match their interests, skills, and academic needs to their project roles, serving as volunteer coordinator, online voter guide coordinator, office manager, watch party coordinator, financial records specialist, event records and archives coordinator, graphic designer, photographer, public relations coordinator, social media coordinator, and more. Students also gain experience in event planning and perform all of the duties required for a successful event, including set-up, clean-up, timekeeping, question running, ushering, voter registration tabling, event registration staffing, guest services, media coordination, reception hosting, discussion moderating, and technology troubleshooting. Students can complete internships for academic credit, work-study wages, or both. Many students who pursue the work-study option make it clear that they would be unable to participate without this option. The work-study option gives students an opportunity to replace off-campus work with flexible and meaningful on-campus employment that fits into their academic schedules. Such on-campus work options promote student leadership, skill-development, and retention.

The students report gaining new knowledge about campaigns and elections, local and state politics, and the relationship between local, state, and national governments. They report new skills in the areas of written communication, oral communication, inter-personal communication, networking, collaboration, and teamwork. They also report new computer skills including document formatting in Word and Publisher and effective usage of PowerPoint, Adobe Acrobat, Mail Merge and Excel – all skills that will serve them well in the future. In addition, students report increased confidence in their ability to work independently and increased comfort with asking important questions when they need help or clarification to successfully perform an assigned task. Students in several fields (including graphic design) use the paid ADP internship to fulfill a graduation requirement, while other use it to gain new skills and contacts while earning the money they need to cover basic expenses that are not covered by financial aid.

The internship program opens doors to future paid leadership positions. Former interns have continued to perform critical leadership roles in the community after graduation. For example, former ADP intern Rachel Santos went on to earn an MPA degree and become the Communications and Operations Manager in the Office of Education Innovation for the City of Indianapolis before accepting her current position as Education Program Coordinator for the Indiana Latino Institute. Former intern Kacey Jackson accepted a position as a Community Development Specialist for the City of Elkhart, Indiana. Both have credited the American Democracy Project internship with improving their academic performance, igniting a passion for civic engagement, and opening up new career pathways.

Students are not the only ones who benefit from meaningful work-study jobs. Faculty and community members benefit, too. There would be no way to host the volume or quality of events we do without a dedicated team of student leaders. There are simply too many “moving parts” for one person to host a successful event without trained student workers and volunteers. Putting students on the payroll makes it easier to guarantee that all roles will be filled and tasks will be completed by dedicated and knowledgeable students. Meanwhile, faculty can supplement their CV and build a case for advancement based on community impact and student engagement, improvement, retention, and success. High impact teaching, mentoring, and service to students – and the community – is easy to document through student reflection papers, journal prompts, participant feedback surveys, testimonials, media coverage, and post-internship job placements. Such documentation can be leveraged in grant proposals, award applications, and promotion and tenure review. Faculty can also work with students to create, present, and publish scholarship regarding various event series and initiatives. Students and I have presented such work at the annual AASCU/NASPA Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Conference, the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, and the Indiana Campus Compact Service Engagement Summit. The next issue of the e-Journal of Public Affairs will feature an article I wrote about how to host a civic leadership academy. The value of the work is both instrumental and inherent. Such internships advance students’ and faculty members’ career goals, while also serving a higher purpose. Robust community-engaged work-study internship programs allow faculty to work with students to advance the public purpose of higher education: educating for democracy.

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