The Democracy USA Project in Retrospect

HPU Experiential Learning Democracy USA Romney Obama Election

The “fabric of America” is a metaphorical phrase often used to describe the makings of our Democratic society.

High Point University students spent months investigating the idea of the phrase through the Democracy USA Project, which launched in the fall and used the 2012 presidential election as a platform for civic engagement. Students produced numerous results since the project’s inception while building their career skills. They held town hall discussions about the intersection of religion and politics, produced a reality-based documentary about the election, and attended the Republican and Democratic National Conventions to experience face-to-face interactions with political leaders, pundits, voters and protesters. One final, tangible outcome of the project arrived to campus at the end of the spring semester, just in time to honor their dedication to becoming civic leaders.

HPU Experiential Learning Democracy Romney Obama Election

The Democracy USA chairs contain signatures of political leaders and activists. HPU students acquired the signatures at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

The Democracy USA chairs and bound book contain signatures from Marco Rubio, CNN reporter Erin Burnett, Tagg Romney, Jon Voight, Jessica Alba and a variety of politicians and activists that students encountered at the national conventions. Communication, political science and other relevant majors who attended the conventions collected these signatures as part of an assignment to create a reality-based TV series, called the “American Dream Project,” that involved 18 months of taping.

Democracy USA Chair 2

HPU Students RNC

Student Sarah Martin (left) interviews Antonio Villaraigosa (center), the mayor of Los Angeles, along with student Lenae Frazier (right) at the Republican National Convention.

When their work was complete, they passed the signatures to students in the School of Art and Design to create artifacts that would forever commemorate one of HPU’s largest experiential learning projects. Corion Bane, an interior design major who graduated in May, worked with Allan Beaver, HPU’s artist in residence, to create a custom upholstery textile that would incorporate the acquired signatures. Wright of Thomasville printed the textile and donated the fabric, while Sherrill Furniture in Hickory, N.C. manufactured and donated two chairs covered in Bane’s custom design. In addition to the chairs, the original signatures have been preserved through a bound book, also on display on campus.

This was a real world experience where our art and design majors dealt with multiple components of producing a piece that carries significant meaning,” says Dr. John Turpin, dean of the School of Art and Design. “Designing objects are particularly powerful when it comes to recording a moment in time. Artifacts are visual records of our culture, its important events and issues – in this case, politics – that affect every aspect of our lives. This is our school’s gift to the project.”

During its duration, the project allowed 300 students and dozens of faculty across departments to investigate the concept of the American dream, its attainability and civic engagement. One of the project’s milestones came when students attended the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, held in Tampa and Charlotte, respectively, to interview political leaders and activists. In addition, multiple colloquiums were held on campus to bring together nine courses in seven academic disciplines to discuss their findings and experiences through the project. The Survey Research Center also positioned students to complete two national HPU Polls – the first national surveys in its history, as well as four statewide polls.

It’s a project that visualized the “fabric of America” in its final outcome while preparing HPU students to become leaders in their own communities.

“The act of collecting the signatures served several purposes for the students, including functioning as an ice-breaker by giving them an opportunity to approach and engage with leaders in the political and entertainment communities,” says Carol Davis, assistant professor of communication who oversaw the American Dream Project.  “Several students used these signatures as conversation starters that ultimately landed them invites to an event hosted by Bill Clinton at the DNC! As a professor, the collection gave me a chance to encourage students to step into a playing field that they may have felt reluctant to jump into.”

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