The following article is from Gregg Kaufman, and describes a forum that was held on October 18, 2016, where University of North Florida students deliberated about the issue of what should be done about immigration.
University of North Florida (UNF) Hicks Honors College students in Jacksonville, Florida, deliberated Immigration in America: How Do We Fix A System in Crisis? on October 18, 2016. Students engaged in the four-year honors program reflect a diversity of academic majors but share a community engagement focus on immigration as they work with local immigrant and refugee resettlement organizations and cultural arts, social services, and athletic programs in the Jacksonville area. Senior students learned moderator skills in two workshops in preparation for the three-hour evening class. After a deliberative democracy presentation that illustrated distinctions with public forums featuring debates or expert panels, the moderators facilitated ninety-minute forums with over 130 first-year students.
The post-forum surveys revealed that 48% of the deliberators stated they were thinking differently about immigration while 52% reported that their thinking did not significantly change. However, when asked if they learned anything new from others, 78.5% responded in the affirmative with 21.5% indicating they had not gained new insights. The students’ survey comments indicated three broad areas of common ground or agreement relative to fixing the immigration system: 1) 38% of the responses mentioned that the immigration system requires redesign with clear regulations in order to become more efficient; 2) 19% valued humanitarian aid and citizenship education for both legal and undocumented immigrants; and 3) 16% advocated for improved border security to prevent illegal entry to the United States.
Dr. Leslie Kaplan, Associate Director of the Hicks Honors College commented “that the students enjoyed the opportunity to formulate their own opinions rather than absorb more information from others and that the structure of the deliberative sessions encouraged students to invest in listening as well as speaking as they sought common ground in each others' statements.”
The opportunity to work with UNF students did reveal an important consideration. Developing a forum experience as an assignment within a course where the first-year students deliberated on one evening with the help of the senior students who received five hours of moderator preparation resulted in students engaging in a communication exercise different than their normal classroom conversations. Some of the moderators felt “awkward” as they were trying out a new method. Ideally, devoting a full-semester course to public deliberation where the faculty and students have the time to study deliberative democracy history and learn the method through trial and error, failure and success, is the optimal way to engage university students in the deliberative democracy movement.