Despite Pandemic, State Lawmakers Still Participate in Policy Class
Aiken, SC (05/12/2020) — As part of her introduction to public policy course at the University of South Carolina Aiken, Dr. Sarah Young challenged students to develop a thoughtful - and thought-provoking - brief on an issue related to higher education funding.
But that's not all.
The students had to actually present the brief to lawmakers. To do that, Young invited three members of the local legislative delegation to visit her class: Sen. Tom Young, Jr., Rep. Bart Blackwell, and Rep. Melissa Oremus. When a global pandemic forced the university to shift all instruction to remote learning, the class figured out a way to meet with lawmakers online. Despite their hectic schedules, the elected leaders took time out of their schedules to participate in the policy course.
"One of the things we try to do as a university is to connect students with the outside world as much as possible," said Dr. Devi Dillard-Wright, chair of the USC Aiken History, Political Science, and Philosophy Department.
"This assignment was a good opportunity to interact with legislators."
Once divided into three different teams, members of the class got to work, researching, analyzing, and formulating their ideas on the South Carolina's Higher Education Opportunity Act, which is currently being considered by the legislature.
"The students researched an important topic affecting students and families all over South Carolina," said Sen. Young, who is not related to the professor by the same name.
"I appreciate their willingness to share that research and their insights on higher education in our state."
As part of their assignment, the Pacers had to clearly define what they believed the problem to be, offer recommendations, provide evidence, and critically evaluate their proposals.
"The students were to frame the issue and supporting arguments in such a way that they speak directly to the legislators and benefit the Aiken region," Dr. Young said.
Her guidance worked, and the lawmakers said they were "impressed" with the Pacers' presentations.
"Seeing [this issue] from the students' perspective, hearing from them, seeing their level of commitment, how much they want an education, and how hard they are willing to work for it, helps us be aware of what we need to fight for," said Blackwell, who represents District 81.
To reinforce their positions, Dr. Young encouraged her students to enhance their policy presentations with personal examples from their own experiences.
"Legislators are probably more interested in hearing your own experiences with higher ed funding than they are in considering wonky data," the professor said.
"It is important to use data and research too, but for citizen lobbying, a personal narrative is appropriate and effective."
The students took her at her word and shared how they've struggled to pay for college, took out loans, worked several jobs, and pinched their pennies. They shared how they believed there should be more need-based aid for students rather than strictly merit-based state scholarships.
"USC Aiken is cheaper than most schools in the state," said Hannah Gray, a political science major.
"But it's still not affordable for some middle-income families."
One lawmaker, who happens to be a USC Aiken grad understands. She's been there and shared her own experiences of balancing home, work, family, and school when she attended the university. Rep. Melissa Oremus, from District 84 who graduated in 2001, told the class that making education accessible to all South Carolinians is important to her.
"The South Carolina House is trying to work together" the freshman representative said.
"We're talking about education and are trying to get things done.
"Our entire [local legislative delegation] is pushing. You have a team and a delegation fighting hard for USC Aiken."
Before members of the local legislative delegation joined the class via ZOOM due to the governor's mandated stay-at-home order, the policy students analyzed the topic of higher education funding thoroughly. In addition to traditional research methods, Young invited Dr. Sandra Jordan, USC Aiken's chancellor, to the class.
Jordan gave a historical perspective on general approaches to higher education funding in recent years, explained the state's budgetary process, and described how local lawmakers have supported the institution in both the S.C. Senate and House. To provide even greater insight before the elected officials heard from the student lobbyists, Mary Driscoll, vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs, shared the university's funding priorities for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years.
While Dr. Young had learning objectives in mind, the students really wanted the lawmakers to consider their positions on the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The elected officials had some insights they wanted to share as part of the project as well.
"These students are passionate about getting their education, and they are interested in how decisions made in Columbia impact them at USC Aiken," Senator Young said.
"Making laws in Columbia is a complicated process that often requires some form of compromise and getting approval from elected officials from all over the state who come from different backgrounds and represent varied constituencies."
Dr. Young's approach to teaching her policy class is lauded as a high-impact practice among educators. Research shows that these methods facilitate active learning, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.
"High-impact practices are a structured and systemic set of educational experiences that promote deep student learning and purposeful engagement," said Dr. Tim Lintner, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs and director of the USC Aiken Center for Teaching Excellence.
"They allow students to experience a multitude of intellectual avenues that hone critical-thinking, facilitate inquiry and action, and engage students both inside and outside of the classroom. They are rooted in inquiry and structured as to allow students to experience multiple means of understanding.
"High-impact practices let students dive deeply into their own constructed understanding of the topics they are studying."
Lintner adds that every department on campus incorporates this approach into the curriculum.
"The number and variety of these experiences provided to USC Aiken students is a testament to the innovative spirit of the faculty who firmly believe that high-impact practices are the cornerstone to a sound liberal arts and sciences education."