American Conversations at St. Olaf College

By Maria Ortiz

American Conversations (AmCon) is a learning community that introduces students in their first two years at St. Olaf College to the liberal arts through a sequence of four civically engaged courses. Assistant Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum has adopted the theme of citizenship for his two-year tenure as AmCon lead teacher. Over the two year span students have had the opportunity to pursue the conversations that have shaped the history and culture of the United States. From the beginning, the AmCon program has encouraged students to seek to live Thomas Jefferson’s dream that free and educated citizens should learn to understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going right. With this model in mind, students dedicated two years of their life to learning about, practicing, and knowing the enlightened citizenry indispensable for us to thrive as a nation.

American Conversations

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The idea behind AmCon is to have conversations about American values, and our role in the world.  What exactly are America’s values? What do we mean when we talk about freedom, rights, and justice for all? What is the American dream, and where did it come from?  The conversations that students engage in move through history, literature, art, and a variety of social sciences focusing on what students now refer to as “dense facts”. Most of all, this two year experience is a community where everyone learns by having conversation — with professors, with the material, and with each other.

The first sequence of courses provided the opportunity to think about voting, specifically the ways in which the practice of voting shapes American citizenship and identity. Students worked in groups in the Northfield, Minnesota area to register people who had not already registered to vote. Students also spoke to Northfield High School social studies classes about the importance of being active in their community and nation by voting. Some students also volunteered to be trained and fill a full shift on Election Day as an Election Judge.

The second sequence in the course focused on sustainability in Northfield and the nearby area. Students discovered how Northfield came to be by examining project sites historically, culturally, socially, environmentally and physically as the landscape was made and re-made throughout time.

In the second year students focused on immigration, migration and ethnicity in early- 20th- century U.S. Students created a workable curriculum for middle school or high school students and discovered resources and great examples of what works to best to support the immigrant population in Northfield.

The final sequence provided a perspective to understanding globalization and citizenship. Students focused on America’s past and present global presence. Students created a segment for local radio stations based on their research.

AmCon gave students the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and articulate what they had learned over the two years. Nate Jacobi, Assistant Director of Civic Engagement in the Center for Experiential Learning facilitated the final conversation. Students had a pre-class assignment to journal about the impact AmCon had on their education as well as their impact beyond the classroom. During their last session together students created a timeline of their experiences together, then broke into small groups to discuss their future plans, what skills they developed, and what civic engagement means to them.

Students agreed that understanding how things work and finding ways to use resources and connections to help the community is important. The two years these students had together working in community, collaborating, and making change was invaluable. According to Jacobi, AmCon provides a deeper form of service-learning profoundly affecting both students and the Northfield community.

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