The inaugural Civic Engagement Symposium was hosted by the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics Tuesday night. High school students, mentored by undergraduates participating in the Civic Engagement Internship, shared their findings about voter turnout to the surrounding community.
Throughout the semester, six undergraduate students went to classrooms once a week at New Designs Charter School and Alliance Neuwirth Leadership Academy and taught students about civic engagement as part of a for-credit political science course or as a volunteer.
The high schoolers then created tri-fold posters expressing the root causes of the lack of voter participation in their community, such as a lack of information and language barriers. They then presented their solutions on how to increase turnout. One poster read, “We all make a difference by making our voices heard.”
After an hour-long open forum in the University Fishbowl Chapel, Unruh Institute Director Dan Schnur delivered remarks about the background of the program.
“When we at USC decided one year ago that we wanted to do something to make a difference in the community surrounding campus, we talked about all of the challenges communities face: safety, clean air and water, good jobs,” Schnur said.
The internship program resulted from discussions from many students about how to best impact the community.
“What we realized together is that every one of those problems comes from the same place: a lack of political participation in communities that need to be represented the most,” Schnur said.
During their introduction, the undergraduates discussed why they got involved with the program and introduced one of their students, who reflected on their semester’s work.
Cashae Ellis, a junior majoring in sociology, taught at New Designs Charter Schools. As someone who grew up in the neighborhood, she elaborated on the importance of participating in the program.
“I know the system they grew up in, and I personally was not taught anything about civic engagement in high school,” Ellis said. “So I wanted to make sure that these students were able to learn what they need to know before they get off in the ‘real world.’”
Sophomore Rachel Udabe, a sophomore majoring in political science and policy, planning and development, and Kyra Schoonover, a junior majoring in political science history, also taught a civics class together at New Designs Charter Schools.
“I thought it’s beautiful that we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these high school students and tell them that there is a way for them to get involved, whether voting or being active in the community,” Udabe said.
In addition to imparting knowledge about voter turnout to the local community, the mentors develop leadership skills as well in heading their own classes.
As the staff associate for the Unruh Institute and the director of the civic engagement internship, Catherine Shieh believes the program gives all participants valuable skills.
“They run the whole thing,” Shieh said. “They learn classroom management, checks for understanding, teacher lingo. It’s very teacher-focused.”
The program had 12 interns teaching 140 students about the importance of civic engagement. Though the program finished its first year and its effects are not yet known, Shieh believes that going into classrooms can inspire the youth to share what they learn with the rest of the community.
“Politics can and does start in the classroom,” Shieh said. “If it’s inspiring people in the community to want to invest in their own community, I think this is the best goal we can bring. Sometimes all it takes is just a little nudge.”