Class challenges students to make change in society

Published 10:06 am Monday, January 20, 2020

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Freshmen in college often have a number of “aha” moments, both in and out of the classroom. Sometimes, they come with a challenge.

“There are 5,000 children in foster care in Virginia,” Lucy McLaughlin ’23 told her Citizen 110 classmates during her final presentation. “That’s one for every Longwood student. When I walk around campus and think that this is how many foster children there are, it makes it real.”

Dr. Lee Bidwell’s Citizen 110 (Inquiry into Citizenship) seminar, titled Be A Change-Maker, challenged students to learn about big societal problems and then think about ways to address them. McLaughlin, a liberal studies major, said her roommate and suitemates are all in different sections of Citizen 110, but they often talk about the topics they are discussing outside of class. She said those conversations often get heated.

“In high school we would talk about issues, but we never got fired up about them,” she said. “But now that we are in these classes and we are critically thinking about and digesting all of these different problems, we get really fired up about them. I feel like that’s what’s going to push us to make a change. Because we have that passion behind it. It’s really cool that we’ve had that opportunity.”

For their final presentations, each student had to give a four-to five-minute talk in front of the class detailing what “change maker” activities they did and what they learned. McLaughlin, for example, made birthday cards and cookies for local children in foster care. Other topics included poverty, the environment, sustainability, literacy, income inequality, food insecurity, deforestation, alcoholism, mental health, health care, school-lunch debt, dementia, air pollution and the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle.

In her presentation, Samantha Gagliardi ’23 talked about poverty and her experience meeting a local food pantry founder who is passionate about the cause of ending hunger in “food deserts,” where access to healthy food options is limited.

“We have been given an opportunity to make a change and to see people with differences from another perspective, and we need to pass it on,” she said during her presentation to the class.

Gagliardi, McLaughlin and their classmates are in the first two classes of students who will matriculate through Longwood’s unique Civitae core curriculum which was implemented in fall 2018 and has a distinctive focus on democratic citizenship.

Civitae puts a strong emphasis on building communication and critical-thinking skills. Most distinctively, it puts Longwood’s citizen-leadership mission at the heart of its classroom experience.

Among the hallmarks of Civitae are small classes taught by engaged, knowledgeable faculty members like Bidwell, a sociology professor who is in her 29th year teaching at Longwood. Civitae classes are capped at about 18-20 students, ensuring that everyone gets one-on-one interaction with a faculty member.

“I actually get something out of this class,” said Heather Forsht ’23. “I feel comfortable in this environment to do presentations, and usually I’m a really shy person. It gives you a platform to be able to build those speaking skills, especially because we’re going to have to use them later.”

The students who complete Civitae will have marketable skills that are adaptable in a rapidly changing economy because they will be able to think, communicate and collaborate.

“Civitae is designed to give breadth and scope to your major,” Bidwell told her students. “The great thing about having a good core curriculum that is liberal arts-based is that it allows you to pivot all the time as careers change. I guarantee there is a job that you all will be doing in the future that doesn’t exist at this time.”

None of the students in Bidwell’s Monday-Wednesday-Friday 11 a.m. class were sociology majors, but several said the concepts and material they learned were relevant and helpful in their other classes and their major coursework. They enjoyed being exposed to students from different majors, and, by the end of the semester, it was apparent the cohort had built a unique camaraderie.

“The whole idea is we want business majors talking to social work majors and biology majors talking to nursing majors,” Bidwell said. “Because we can learn from each other. That interdisciplinary nature — not just of the classes, but of the student body—is supposed to help generate conversation.”

The required reading for Bidwell’s class included Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-winning “Evicted” and Beth Macy’s “Dopesick” The New York Times bestseller that she will discuss at Longwood later this month.

Each student had to complete two “change maker” activities during the semester. Several students attended events, including lectures, on campus; others volunteered off campus or back home in their communities. Students could also write a blog post about an issue they were interested in and what solutions are needed to address it.

After reading “Evicted,” Alissa Wilson ’23 was interested in finding out more about the poverty rate in Prince Edward County, so she researched the county’s wage gap.

Caroline Hampton ’23 went to a program focused on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans brought to America, specifically the shores of Virginia, in 1619. She said it helped her realize the need to better understand our history.

Heather Forsht ’23 volunteered at a therapeutic horseback riding center, where she helped spruce up the facility and then worked at an event for special-needs students.

Donovan Burns ’23 volunteered at his old high school, working with special education students on nonverbal and music skills. He wants to be a music teacher, and, after his Citizen 110 experience, he said he’d like to minor in sociology.