Sorensen College Leaders Program
Teaching students about state politics and policy, challenging them to be engaged citizens
Photo by Dan Addison
|A typical day at the Sorensen Institute’s College Leaders Program involves participants working cooperatively on policy. The CLP brings together college students from across the commonwealth to study the mechanisms of Virginia politics and policy and to learn to be more active citizens.
By Chris Wilson
With 15 minutes until lunch, any other group of college students might have been casting furtive glances at the clock and packing up their things. But for these 25 students, lunch could wait.
They were participants in the College Leaders Program, an intensive four-week session run through the Thomas C. Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. The program brought together college students from across the commonwealth to study the mechanisms of Virginia politics and policy and to learn to be more active and engaged citizens. Members of this summer’s class represent 14 colleges and universities.
On that particular Wednesday afternoon, the students were discussing civil liberties in the post-9/11 world.
“What should weigh more heavily, our liberties or our securities?” asked instructor Thomas Shields, leadership studies professor at the University of Richmond. Six or seven hands shot up emphatically in response.
Shields pressed them further: How much authority should the government have in mandating safety precautions, such as wearing seatbelts and installing fire alarms in one’s house? What about a government ban on smoking in all public facilities?
Just before they broke for lunch, Shields asked his students to reconsider all the topics they had covered that morning and put them in perspective.
“Why do some issues bubble up to the top?” he asked. “Think about where you fall here on all of these ideas.”
Marc Johnson, the youth programs director for the Sorensen Institute, said the program is designed to have a “top-down” approach to civic engagement among youths in Virginia, in which graduates of the program come away eager to share what they have learned and experienced.
“We want them to come out of the program energized to engage their peers,” Johnson said.
The curriculum itself is the responsibility of Johnson and Sean O’Brien, the new executive director of the Sorensen Institute. Classes are taught by Shields and Quentin Kidd, an associate professor of political science at Christopher Newport University.
Students who are sophomores, juniors or graduating seniors at a Virginia college or university, or who are Virginia residents attending school elsewhere, are eligible to apply for the program. The application consists of a written portion and a phone interview, Johnson said.
Similar to the larger Sorensen Institute, which seeks to improve political leadership in Virginia on both sides of the aisle, Johnson said the CLP tries to attract participants with a wide spectrum of ideologies, as well as a diversity of gender, ethnicity and geography. The goal, he said, is for the students to realize that they can work cooperatively on policy despite such differences.
To that end, the students work in groups on a culminating project, in which they research a particular public policy topic and craft a solution that they generate over the course of the session. At the end of the program, they have the opportunity to present their findings to a panel of policy-makers, faculty and members of the press.
While working on their projects, students may bat around their ideas with any of the several dozen speakers the program hosts. Among this year’s slate of speakers was Russ Potts, an independent candidate in the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial election – someone the students were still talking about days after he visited.
Last year, Johnson said, one project proposed to boost youth civic engagement by empowering one student in each high school to act as a voter registrar. It was partially adopted as a resolution put forth in the General Assembly by one of the panel members, Del. Mitch Van Yahres, the retiring delegate from the 57th district. The bill, which encouraged youth involvement in the political process, died in committee.
This year, project topics ranged from confidential testing for sexually transmitted infections at health clinics at state colleges and universities to a proposal for Virginia to enact a policy that would freeze tuition for a given student at the rate he or she pays for the first year of college, meaning that increases in tuition only would affect future classes of students.
Vineet Mehta, a third-year biochemistry and economics major at U.Va. who is researching testing for sexually transmitted infections, said the end goal was to see these projects be adopted as policy.
“I think we all want our projects to end up as legislation,” Mehta said.
For Aaron Jennings, a fourth-year religious studies and American politics major at the University working on the tuition freeze project, his personal goal in participating in CLP was to examine what role government should play in topics of social justice.
“I am big on empowering people,” Jennings said. “But in order to see social justice come into effect, government has to have a hand in that, whether it’s a big hand or a small hand.”
Jennings and Mehta have different ideas about what they want to eventually do with the knowledge and skills they are gleaning from this experience. Jennings said he would consider running for public office some day, while Mehta, who plans to go to medical school, said he would prefer to remain behind the scenes.
The CLP was founded in 1999 by the Virginia Citizenship Institute, but moved to the directorship of the Sorensen Institute in 2002-2003. That same year, based on the success of the college program, the Sorensen Institute began offering a similar program for high-school students.