Trips to Washington D.C. Inspire and Motivate Gardner-Webb Students

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Opportunities Abound at GWU for “Outside the Classroom” Learning

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – The belief that “education is a staging ground for action” is conveyed in many ways at Gardner-Webb University.   Most recently, the concept became more than just a theory discussed within the walls of a classroom as dozens of students participated in two separate trips to the nation’s capitol within a span of less than two months.

One visit was academically driven, while the other helped advance a social issue important to many GWU students.  In January, six students from the political science and communication studies departments attended a 10-day Washington D.C. seminar that centered on the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Last fall, around 20 students participated in the Invisible Children “MOVE:DC” March, held in November.  Each of the students who took time to travel to the nation’s capitol took away an important lesson about the impact of their voice in the national political scene.

The MOVE:DC March was coordinated in response to a year-long international public awareness campaign to bring to light atrocities being committed in Africa by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  Kony is believed to be abducting children and infiltrating them into his army, forcing them to attack other innocent African communities.  The Invisible Children organization is working to bring a responsible and permanent end to the LRA, and the MOVE:DC  event was the final chapter in the KONY 2012 campaign.  Their singular aim was to convince U.S. leaders to move for justice.  According to Invisible Children, participants at MOVE:DC stood with human rights activists and leaders from LRA-affected communities in central Africa and called for international leadership to arrest Joseph Kony and his top commanders.  Marchers also lobbied for the passage of legislation which would help fund and prioritize efforts to restore African communities devastated by LRA violence.

“I felt like I was a part of something big, like I was a piece in a very important puzzle,” said Stephen Maynard, a junior sociology and criminal justice major who attended the MOVE:DC event.  “So many generations have been involved in different marches, like our parents and the Civil Rights movement.  Now it was my generation’s turn and I felt really proud to see 11,000 other young people who cared enough to participate.”

GWU Community Engagement Coordinator Stephanie Capps helped organize and sponsor the trip for interested students.  The Invisible Children/KONY 2012 campaign is one that is close to the hearts of many folks at Gardner-Webb and within just a few days, around 20 students had signed up to participate in the march.  They gathered at Tucker Student Center on Friday afternoon and were on their way.  They slept on floors at host sites and endured less-than-comfortable conditions throughout much of their trip.

“We drove until 2 a.m. Saturday morning, slept a couple of hours on the floor of a Jewish synagogue, caught the Metro to D.C., and didn’t stop moving until 11 p.m. Saturday night,” said Abby Simmons, a freshman American Sign Language major.  “In the end, I had to remind myself that the trip was not about me.  I could put up with discomfort and exhaustion if it meant changing the lives of others.”

For each of the participants, being part of a huge, politically-charged event helped them experience new levels of unity. “The number of people who were there and the amount of fellowship and camaraderie was amazing,” said sophomore Christy Apisa, a psychology/sociology major. “We were there for a common goal and we were unified.”

Junior Katie Spiro spent her summer in an internship in Washington, and was excited to return to D.C. for the march.  “As an individual, I know I have the power to ask questions and discover answers,” Spiro reflected.  “As a citizen, I have a responsibility for my fellow countrymen; and as a human being, I should not ignore my instinct and desire to protect fellow human beings from destruction.”

While many events like this don’t yield immediate results, the GWU students were thrilled to learn that just weeks after the march, Congress passed the “Rewards for Justice” expansion bill, the exact legislation for which they had lobbied.  “Never underestimate the power of the internet and social media,” Simmons shared. “The KONY 2012 movement started with a You Tube video and it mushroomed into a worldwide fight to end the reign of Joseph Kony.  It is incredible to realize that when people are inspired, they truly can inspire a positive change in the world.”

Kate Bumgarner is a freshman nursing major and admitted that initially she wasn’t so sure whether the march would result in any significant changes.  “I can be very negative about seeing actual changes in laws and rights, so to see such a positive result happen during this whole ordeal was amazing,” she said.  “We helped get a bill passed which creates more support towards ending this war.  At the end of the day, I will forget many of the things I had to memorize from a textbook, but I will never forget marching for human rights.”

An academic conference designed to allow students an opportunity to witness history in the making was hosted and organized by The Washington Center Jan. 12-21, and focused on a wide range of speeches, learning sessions, tours, and educational opportunities leading up to the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Six Gardner-Webb political science and communication studies majors were given a chance to apply to participate in the historic events, along with hundreds of students from over 117 other colleges and universities. Gardner-Webb Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Ben Gaskins served as a facilitator and small group leader.

According to The Washington Center, through site visits, tours, and special events, faculty and students from colleges across the country were able to witness history and democracy in action, better understand the media’s impact on presidential campaigns, build a professional network and explore potential career paths, and interact with nationally and internationally recognized leaders in politics and media.

Senior Tyler Sain, a double major in history and political science, believes the “outside the classroom” learning experiences at Gardner-Webb have greatly enriched his overall understanding of a wide range of concepts and principles.  “These types of unconventional learning opportunities are so important in receiving a complete educational experience,” Sain shared.  “Anyone can sit in a room and read and talk about something, but it is totally different to be able to engage and react to a subject in a personal way.  For instance, we discussed Political Action Committees (PACs) frequently in class, however on this trip, we actually met leaders of PACs and were able to discuss issues in a small group setting with them.  That is irreplaceable.”

Senior Jessica Hibbard also believes the non-traditional learning opportunities should be seized whenever possible. “When you get a chance to try something new, be a part of history, or travel the world, you should definitely go,” Hibbard shared. “College is a time for exploring the world we live in.  When opportunities arise, take them because you just don’t know if something like that will ever pass your way again.”

Another component of the trip that participants say was of critical importance was finding their political voice.  Nicholas Berryhill is a junior political science major, and felt compelled to go to D.C. because he had worked on campaigns during the 2012 election and believed it would be a great way to complete his election season involvement. “I know it is important to get engaged in politics at a young age, because you learn how to cooperate and work with diverse people with different beliefs,” Berryhill reflected.  “Our increased civic engagement has the potential to uplift our communities.  Although it is frustrating, we should not focus on the gridlock and partisanship.  That makes the average person lose confidence in our governing institutions.”

U.S. Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-NC) agrees with Berryhill and encourages student involvement in matters of political significance.  “I hope students realize how important it is to pay attention to current events and to get involved in the process,” McHenry said.  “Their lives will be significantly affected by decisions made by folks in Raleigh and Washington, but it’s up to them to influence those decisions.”

Participation in these events does not represent an affirmation of any partisanship on the part of the University.  In order to protect the academic and intellectual freedom of our students, faculty and staff alike, Gardner-Webb does not privilege or endorse any particular political perspective, candidate or party. 

Located in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb University provides exceptional educational opportunities within a Christian environment, preparing students to think critically, to succeed professionally, and to serve faithfully as members of their local and global communities.