Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts is giving students a chance to give back to Alabama communities in a way that has a lasting impact. Through the Living Democracy program, students of all majors have the chance to interact with and play integral roles in Alabama towns that have a population of under 9,000.
Living Democracy began in the summer of 2011 when the first group of students went to live in four towns: Collinsville, Elba, Linden and Selma. For 10 weeks these students lived and immersed themselves in the towns’ cultures, communities and activities. Each town gave the student a place to live for the entirety of their stay as they still do for current students now.
First funded by The Kettering Foundation, the idea for Living Democracy was, as Nan Fairley, associate professor of journalism at Auburn University, and co-coordinator of Living Democracy, said “to find out what happens when you initially take students beyond service into a deeper immersion experience.”
Apart from community outreach, The Kettering Foundation focused the program on politics: “what you can learn about democracy while living in a community,” Fairley explains.
But the purpose and outcome of the program is much more than that. Its mission is to enable students to be active in community life and enrich their own lives by giving back and making personal connections with citizens. During their 10-week stay students are assigned projects and specific tasks that match student interests and community problems, as well as write weekly reflection reports that often turn into publishable material, many of which have been published on www.al.com.
“It’s more than identifying the problem, but addressing the problem and finding solutions,” Fairley said, describing the purpose of civic journalism.
For one student living in Linden during the summer of 2012, Blake Evans, who is currently earning his Master’s in Public Administration, his main task was to create an economic development DVD for the town and help set up a photography contest with Linden’s youth.
“At the end of my time in Linden, the town threw me a celebration and gave me a key to the city and asked me to come back and be the Grand Marshall for their Christmas Parade,” Evans told a group of prospects for next summer.
While the students work on their projects they learn about the importance of democracy, its impact on society, and discover things about themselves along the way. The stories the students come back with range from profiles on different community members to the adventures they have had while living there.
While living in these towns, students interact with people they typically wouldn't in a normal setting and also gain a new perspective on life in a small town. From the projects they do to the articles and reflection papers they write, each student gains valuable experience in civic involvement and journalistic writing.
“There is so much more learning in the real-world than inside the classroom,” Fairley emphasized, “We really don’t understand anything until we get out there.”
But before the students embark on this project, they are enrolled in a journalism and research program that teaches them the basics of research, interviewing, and journalistic writing. Through this class they can successfully research and write about the issues and stories they have taken away from these rural communities.
The coordinators, Nan Fairley and Mark Wilson, meet with the towns’ community partners and the students to design an impactful project and thoroughly understand what needs to be addressed in each community. Extensive planning goes into the Living Democracy program so students can get the most out of this experience.
“After three years of this program, we are learning how the students truly discover a lot about themselves during those ten weeks as well as have an impact on the communities where they live in a lot of positive ways,” Fairley said.
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