It’s easy for political science, public administration, education and social service majors to have opportunities to think about how they apply what they learn in their major to civic life. But what about the biology or mathematics major? The Honors College at James Madison University is leading the charge with its path-breaking efforts to institutionalize civic engagement no matter which discipline their students choose.
Over the summer, rising Honors Freshman were tasked with orienting themselves to James Madison University by reading James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. Then they arrived at campus a few days earlier than the rest of the Freshman class for an orientation that included the Honors Freshman Retreat at Montpelier. The program is an example of how the Honors College is linking civic engagement and civic competencies in an academic framework that isn’t tied to an individual course or discipline. As such, it holds the possibility of breaking through to students who choose to major in a discipline that isn’t necessarily inclined to civic engagement. The Honors Freshmen Retreat centers on academic themes related to active, informed citizenship and civic leadership, themes to which they will return over and over during their entire four years as undergraduates at JMU. And this makes it distinct from what other universities Honors’ retreats do by providing a learning experience that is deeply connected to JMU’s vision and mission.
With more than 220 students participating, the Freshman Honors Retreat sets the foundation for the JMU experience and what it means to be active, informed citizens. The idea began percolating with Honors College Associate Dean Dr. Phil Frana more than five years ago. When Dr. Brad Newcomer arrived at JMU as the new Dean of the Honors College, he and Dr. Frana went on an exploratory trip to Montpelier. According to Dr. Newcomer, “The idea made sense because it was opportunity to give Honors students an academically-focused orientation with a connection not only to the university’s namesake, but also to university-wide strategic initiatives focused on making JMU a national model for the engaged university, initiated under President Jonathan Alger’s leadership.”
It took several years to build the program as Montpelier was building up infrastructure, renovating and developing the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit. This was also the first time Montpelier hosted a large event for university students that also included a service project. It also required navigating logistics at JMU, including collaborating with the Office of Residence Life to arrange for early move-in and meals for Honors Freshman. The effort was also abetted by a change in culture at JMU emphasizing greater collaboration across campus, and the creation of the Honors College (from the Honors Program) and the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement as strategic initiatives of the institution. Fostering connections to Montpelier has been a long-term goal of the university, though several JMU faculty, including Chris Arndt, Meg Mulrooney and Emma Thacker, among others, have had long-term relationships with Montpelier.
The Honors Retreat was organized thematically around the interplay between citizenship and leadership, examining Madison’s example and his complicated legacy. Raquel Suarez, who is the program director for the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution and played a pivotal role orchestrating the program at Montpelier, noted, “As the historic home of James Madison, Montpelier is a natural learning site for JMU’s incoming freshman students of the Honors College to learn about the life of James Madison and engage with his most powerful idea: government by the people. James Madison believed an educated and engaged citizenry is critical for representative democracy and government to survive and thrive, and Montpelier is the place where these revolutionary ideas that came to shape our nation were created and nurtured so that future generations can take and reshape for themselves.”
While there were many possibilities, this theme was ultimately chosen because “civic education begins with real people, their ideas and their actions,” according to Dr. Frana. The objective was also to prompt students to reflect on how they might demonstrate in their academic, professional and personal lives the positive aspects of Madison’s legacy – including advancing the public good over private interests, advancing a more just and free society, seeking diversity, building trust and consensus, fostering collaboration and compromise, among others – and to contemplate how they will contribute to completing the unfinished work of creating a “more perfect union.”
JMU students were paired with JMU faculty and Montpelier interpreters for the day-long retreat, which included learning about Madison, touring the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit, the house and grounds, and doing on-site service projects. In addition to the Brookhiser biography, students were given a “Guide to Montpelier” developed by Dr. Frana with book excerpts and discussion questions used by faculty and Montpelier interpreters to engage students in reflection and discussion about Madison’s legacy.
Students resoundingly enjoyed the enriching discussion and the academic components of the retreat. In the post-experience survey, over 80% of students said that the retreat was both worthwhile and more than 70% said they would build from the experience during their honors college career. In open-ended comments, one student stated:
“The Honors Orientation definitely prepared students with much more of an emphasis on getting us ready to think critically, which I personally appreciated. The Montpelier Retreat was such an awesome experience, and I loved getting to learn about the life of the man behind the name of our school as well as our Constitution. Honors Orientation really set the precedence for how we are to analyze things during our next four years (and beyond).”
An astounding 97% of students said that they learned something new about James Madison and his legacy. According to one student, “The Montpelier Retreat showed us how to be active members of the JMU communities and how we should incorporate some of Madison’s ideas into our own lives.” Another student commented that the Montpelier Retreat was more thought-provoking than a traditional orientation “in the sense that you’re reflecting on Madison’s life to determine what your values are going to be at JMU over the next four years.”
The retreat also served as opportunity for the cohort to bond and build connections and relationships with faculty, and to other students, especially students who don’t live in the same residence hall or on the same floor. In the post-experience survey, 85% of students responded that the retreat helped build community, and this opportunity for community-building in turn enabled Honors freshman to develop trust and comfort to talking with each other about difficult issues from multiple viewpoints across the political spectrum.
Students did struggle in grappling with the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit and wanted more opportunities to discuss the paradox of freedom, democracy and slavery. The Honors College plans to build in more time for discussion in future retreats.
Dr. Frana views the Montpelier Retreat as one of the most important things that the Honors College now does. He called it a “touch point for students between orientation, their freshman year in general, and their experience in honors.” Future retreats will incorporate different themes, perhaps rural, pastoral or environmental connections, to continue to emphasize interdisciplinary academic exploration. The Honors College is also looking expand opportunities for students to stay engaged depending on their discipline and offer ways to continue to connect to Madison’s legacy.
An ongoing question is how to reinforce the experience throughout students’ time at JMU. Honors students also take general education courses that offer opportunities to revisit what they learned and experienced during the Montpelier retreat. One such course is a required introductory Communications course, which in Fall 2018 included assignments to research and create civic action plans to address complex public issues. Dr. Chris Arndt also offers a history course on the Age of Madison and Dr. Meg Mulrooney offers courses in public history. Students especially motivated or inspired can also choose to complete a civic engagement and community service track, or the track in ethical leadership, both of which offer, upon completion, a transcript notation. The civic engagement and community service track, being developed by Dr. Carah Ong Whaley (The Madison Center) and Jamie Williams (Community Service Learning) will allow students to develop skills and applied expertise to tackle complex problems and complete a capstone project.
To other universities thinking about offering a similar experience, Dr. Frana recommends ensuring that the experience is relevant to the students. “It can be easy to slip into a history lesson or a field trip,” Dr. Frana said, “The Honors College tried intentionally to connect the past to the present and formulate a learning experience that included discussing how past issues are live today. Many of the sociopolitical issues in Madison’s age are still relevant and present. Decisions that people, including Madison, made still have authority today. The authority of dead people is really kind of amazing!”
By examining Madison’s strengths and weaknesses, the Honors College emphasized he was a product of the time, but he was also his own person in the same way we are. This led to some discussion about whether it’s appropriate to evaluate people in the past on current values. However, it also led to contemplation about how society today may be judged in the future and prompted students to think about their place in society, individual decisions, as well as what kind of leadership and sacrifice are needed to address the issues society struggles with today.
Not all colleges or universities have this type of civic connection, either geographically or even to a college vision or mission in which civic engagement is the crown jewel. But other Honors programs and colleges can think about designing Freshman retreats that connect their academic focus to serving community needs. Such retreats might focus thematically on a pressing public issue or working alongside a community organization. Dr. Frana suggests thinking about the program’s core identity and then choosing partners, location and designing the program. But programs also have to open to transforming their own identity through community partnerships. Dr. Frana noted that in developing a relationship with Montpelier, “it transformed our identity in profound ways because we had to think about what we wanted to be as a consequence of that. And we made a commitment to be more like Madison.”