As voters go to the polls Nov. 6, a group of University of Nebraska–Lincoln students are mulling their futures in public service.
Fourteen Husker undergraduates got an up-close look at serving in office, civil discourse and running campaigns during a week-long Elect to Serve pop-up class. The class was offered by the Honors Program and the Center for Civic Engagement Oct. 15-19, with the large majority of instruction time taking place while most students were on fall break. The course covered campaign fundamentals, civility, the art of persuasion, all leading up to the students working in teams on a mock campaign.
The class is one of the few in the United States that is nonpartisan and aims to help teach students how to run for public office or help those who do, said Patrice McMahon, director of the University Honors Program and professor of political science.
McMahon and Linda Major, director for the Center for Civic Engagement, led the course, but ceded the floor to local and state officials who shared their own experiences. Those officials included Susanne Shore, first lady of Nebraska; Adam Morfeld, state senator; Connie Duncan, Lincoln Public Schools Board of Education member; Hunter Traynor, current ASUN President; Spencer Hartman, former ASUN President; and Bennie Shobe, Lincoln City Council member.
“When we designed the course, we were thinking about students who have an interest in public service and perhaps running for elective office,” Major said. “What we also found is that we’re not the only ones interested in developing the next generation of leaders. Current elected officials and those who work in support of those elected positions are invested in the very same thing, and wanted to come speak.”
Connor Mullin, a senior from Lincoln, said he appreciated the breadth of backgrounds the speakers offered.
“It was a well-balanced setup,” said Mullin, a history and political science major. “They were offering multiple perspectives and ways to get involved.”
Following two immersive days of classes, students were aligned into three teams. Each team was ideologically diverse, but shared one common goal — to build a campaign to run for the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, which had to include an identity or brand and a values platform.
Sophomore Joel Beckwith said he enjoyed the entire class, but working in the campaign group was especially valuable.
“It was really exciting to hear from people who are passionate about serving their communities, and how they engage in civil discourse and work together to get things done,” said Beckwith, a marketing and finance major from Los Angeles. “Working with the other students in our group was really important. Listening to — not just hearing — others and working through disagreements was a good experience.”
Sheridan Macy, a junior history, global studies and political science major from Omaha, said team members bonded while they learned about running for public office. Macy also appreciated hearing from so many elected officials and some who work behind the scenes, such as Mary Johnson, a campaign consultant.
“I wanted to have a better idea of what it takes to run for office,” Macy said. “I think have a more realistic view and better understanding now of what holding office would entail.”
Macy said she’s looking ahead at using her degree for public service.
“I think I definitely see myself running for something that involves policymaking, like city council or a local position like that,” she said.
Mullin said he would like to run for office someday, but through the class, realized he should wait longer than he initially intended.
“I have an interest in running for office, and wanted to very soon,” he said. “I realized it’s harder to run for political office than I thought, especially as an independent, which Ellen Weissenger talked about. Right now, I don’t feel that either party fits me.”
Weisenger is running as an independent for the Southeast Community College Board of Governors.
Major and McMahon said the pop-up course was a success and that they plan to offer a semester-long, nonpartisan honors course in fall 2019.
“We had such good feedback from the students and from our elected officials and community,” McMahon said. “Our students knocked it out of the park. I truly hope that some of our students think about public service. It would make me happy and proud for any of them to become an elected official.”