At Alma College, Students Learn Their Voices Matter

Alma College students are pictured posing with State Senator Jim Stamas. Alma College students are pictured posing with State Senator Jim Stamas.By Benjamin Peterson, lecturer of political science and history at Alma College

Today, so many people believe that their voices do not matter. They believe that nothing can be accomplished through politics except conflict, strife, and bother. But in reality, all it takes is a few phone calls, and a bit of bravery, to schedule meetings with legislators, have a conversation, and maybe change the world a little. Ever since I began teaching, I have wanted students to have exactly this authentic experience.

Over the past Spring Term at Alma College, I realized this dream while teaching a course called Political Advocacy and the Environment. As part of this class, my students designed a plan to help raise awareness in the legislature about agricultural run-off into the local Pine River. The students did tremendous work in the classroom, doing research and holding robust discussions about the issue of agriculture and environmental quality. We talked about how state government works, and watched committee hearings online so that students could understand the personalities and quirks of each legislator. They considered solutions to the run-off issue, designed fact sheets, and planned communication strategies.

But the class did more than this. It is one thing to learn about an issue, it something else to advocate for it in front of a legislator! Thanks to the Alma College Center for College and Community Engagement (3CE), we were able to provide our students with an authentic political experience. The 3CE provided funding and connections for us to take a trip down to the state capitol in Lansing, and meet members of the state Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the governor’s staff. We were sharing space — as well as our informed perspectives — with the people who had the power to get things done in government, and make a significant difference in our local community.

As a professor, it was a transformational experience. Knowing that they would be heading down to Lansing made the experience real and authentic for my students. They thrived on that authenticity, with some students clicking at the writing and research part of lobbying, and others excelling at discussion and debate. One student blossomed and roamed around every room he was in, talking with everyone he met. Everyone enjoyed talking with him, and several offered him internships. It turns out that he’s a natural lobbyist. He even got me a meeting with the governor’s top policy advisor! Several of the students from the trip are now pursuing careers in political advocacy and I am helping them to find internships.

I recognize that not every student may be animated by the issue of agricultural run-off, though a small group of my students plan to continue working on the issue. That’s not really the point. This is: The students have seen how government works with their own eyes. They know they can make a difference. And I have no doubt that they will make a positive difference for our community, our state, and our country.

— Benjamin Peterson is a lecturer of political science and history at Alma College, as well as a former lobbyist and political organizer.