186 South College

grab your coffee, sit back and hang out with the UD Honors Program for a while

Month: November 2010

The Epicenter of Politics – National Agenda: The Battle for Congress

by Max Kramer

“Welcome to the University of Delaware, the epicenter of politics.” Former CNN Correspondent and UD Professor Ralph Begleiter’s voice echoed throughout a sold out Mitchell Hall on one of the most memorable nights in University of Delaware history. Professor Begleiter’s National Agenda course brought the two candidates from the Delaware Senate race to the Mitchell Hall stage for the only formal nationally televised debate of the campaign season. This race was thrust into the national spotlight after Republican Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell defeated longtime Delaware Congressman Mike Castle in the September primary. Emotions and excitement ran high as Chris Coons, Democratic New Castle County Executive, and his Republican opponent, Christine O’Donnell, walked onto the stage with Delaware First Media’s Nancy Karabjanean and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Signs and supporters of both candidates lined The Green throughout the evening. The campus was a media circus. CNN even broadcasted Blitzer’s “The Situation Room” from right outside Smith Hall, and the Foreign Press Corps came for a piece of the action to see American democracy and campaigning at work.

This was just one example in what is turning out to be an unbelievable experience in Professor Begleiter’s National Agenda course. We have seen Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary Clinton’s former Presidential campaign manager and longtime confidant, and Ken Vogel, a renowned journalist from POLITICO.com. Part of the course involves bringing guest speakers like these to campus, and the series has been a huge success to date. The series continued just days after the debate when Karl Rove and Howard Dean, celebrated political figures on their respective sides of the aisle, shared the stage at the Bob Carpenter Center to discuss contemporary political issues. The talk got rather heated on issues like immigration and the economy. The speaker series closed with David Plouffe, President Obama’s campaign manager, who discussed the results of the midterm elections.

But the course is not all about the speakers. For myself and other students in the Honors section of National Agenda, the course has given us the opportunity to do something we would probably never have done had it not been for Professor Begleiter and this class. One of the Honors assignments involved going around campus collecting questions from students. We screened them and chose which ones would be best to ask the candidates in the senatorial debate as well as the debate between John Carney (Democrat) and Glen Urquhart (Republican), candidates for the House of Representatives. Choosing the questions was a tough process, but it really taught us what we need to look for when deciding what to ask candidates running for such high profile political offices. We essentially controlled the flow of a half hour of each debate with these questions, so they needed to be chosen wisely. The student question portion of each debate turned out to be a huge success and some of our fellow classmates were even on CNN!
For myself and other students in the Honors section of National Agenda, the course has given us the opportunity to do something we would probably never have done had it not been for Professor Begleiter and this class.

My venture into American politics has included interning for Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy from New York and working on political campaigns ranging from a New York State Senate race to a campaign in the Democratic Primary for New York State Attorney General. As I continue on my journey, I know that I will take these experiences of watching and listening to what the National Agenda speakers had to say and of choosing the questions for the debates (an experience that has led me to understand what issues are most important to various candidates), along with me for the ride. The National Agenda course and speaker series is an incredible program that has been shared with our entire campus this fall. Although Election Day has passed, we still have plenty to talk about as this country moves forward into a new era of American politics with the recent shift of power in Congress.

Russell Coffeehouse raises money for Village Health Works in Burundi

The UD Honors Program will donate $300 raised at the Russell Coffeehouse on November 14 to Village Health Works in Burundi, Africa. The Russell Fellows, who organize and run the annual Russell complex-wide talent show, asked students to donate their spare change to Village Health Works because it is Deo Niyizonkiza’s organization. Deo, who was at UD in September, was the inspiration for Tracy Kidder’s book, Strength in What Remains, this year’s Freshman Common Reader,

For this year’s Coffeehouse, Russell and Freshman Fellows transformed the lounge into an African Safari to complement fundraising for the healthcare organization in Burundi. More than 200 students attended the Coffeehouse which featured a Chinese folk dance, a Russian vocal and guitar piece, an original poetry reading, and a variety of other musical performances.

Students of Our Environment: Learning About and From Nature

by Katie Bonanno

This summer, as an incoming Honors material culture preservation major envisioning my first semester at the University of Delaware, I never imagined that I would spend it collecting insect samples, watching birds, counting plants, or learning to effectively teach middle school students. However, my first-year Honors colloquium, “Students of Our Environment,” taught by Professor Sue Barton, gives me the unique opportunity to experience each of these activities in rapid succession.

Clearly, the colloquium demands a wide range of expertise; lessons are taught by Dr. Barton, plant and soil sciences; Dr. Hough-Goldstein, entomology and wildlife ecology; Dr. Shriver, entomology and wildlife ecology; and Dr. Ford, elementary education. This course not only expertly encapsulates the interdisciplinary intention of Honors colloquia – “Students of Our Environment” combines environmental science, education techniques, and challenging writing assignments – but it also has brought to light one of the most pressing issues of our generation: nature-deficit disorder.

The course was formulated on the premise that people have lost their connection with nature, much to their disadvantage. This condition has been called “nature-deficit disorder” by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. In order to encourage society’s re-immersion in nature, the culminating project for the class is to create a middle school curriculum that gets children interested in nature, hence the projects our class has completed thus far.

The University of Delaware houses five environmental study sites: a suburban landscape, a corn field, a wetland, a meadow, and a woodlot. From each of the sites, we have collected insects, counted plants, and observed birds; we are currently in the process of analyzing our data and writing research reports. However, the class also emphasizes our personal connections with nature, and we have read, discussed, and written reflection papers on different aspects of this connection.

Above all, “Students of Our Environment” is a hands-on course. In order to experience firsthand what it is like to teach young children about nature, our class traveled to NorthBay Adventure Camp, an environmental center located about forty minutes from campus in North East, Maryland. Through collaboration with NorthBay’s Dean of Educators, Mary Reichley, our class was able to shadow different groups of students and their NorthBay educators, learning about ways to present nature and science to groups of students in an engaging and effective manner. Each group of students focused on different subject matter, ranging from vultures to clams, yet all of the educators approached the material in an appealing and functional fashion. Ideally, the techniques we learned at NorthBay will be applied to our own curricula, which will work to combat nature-deficit disorder in society today.

Trips like my class’ excursion to NorthBay Adventure Camp add substantially to the splendid and enriching experience of the Honors Program’s first-year Honors colloquia. As I near the end of my first semester at the University of Delaware, I maintain that I never expected to take a class like “Students of Our Environment.” However, I consider myself lucky to have been given the opportunity to experience a class where discussions, lecture, hands-on activity, and a culminating community outreach project simultaneously, seamlessly come into play.

Traveling around Indonesia

by Kristin Zinsmeister

“Did you ever feel pressure from your family?”

The Muslim woman looked at the American student interviewing her on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia. The interviewer, Liza Melms, an Honors Program international relations major, knew the Muslim woman was expecting this question. Melms looked at the light purple fabric embellished with silver trim that covered the woman’s hair and cascaded over her shoulders. Melms found it hard to believe that such a fashionable item of clothing is a controversial garment in many parts of the world.

“No,” she responded, “this is my choice.” “How old were you when you started to wear it?” asked Melms. “Only five years ago, when I was 20. I had a calling from within my heart to be a better Muslim. You need to be ready before you make the big decision to wear it.”

Melms had been living in Indonesia for almost a month, but she was always surprised and appreciative of how open the Indonesian people were to talk with her about their religion. Although Melms planned most of her interviews, this one occurred unexpectedly and she wanted to soak in as much information as possible. She asked the Muslim woman several more questions that delved further into the Muslim religion before they parted ways.

Melms’ notes from these kinds of interviews are invaluable for her research on the role of the hijab or head scarf in Muslim women’s lives, and her Honors Degree with Distinction thesis, entitled Contrasting Indonesia and Egypt: the role of the hijab in public versus private life as a religious and cultural choice. This on-location research was made possible through the Plastino Scholarship, a highly competitive monetary grant of up to $6,000 that funds students to conduct off-campus self-designed learning experiences, after the students undergo a rigorous application and review process.

“Since we can spend no more than $6,000, I had to plan every expense I would have for every day of my travels. This was especially important for me since I was traveling to two countries, Indonesia and Egypt, to conduct my research.”

This past August, Melms spent 30 days in Indonesia. She split her time between Jakarta and Banda Aceh and through her interviews, gained insight into the Muslim way of life. She tried to formally record and interview a wide range of individuals including businesswomen, Islamic scholars, and leaders of Islamic organizations. She also informally interviewed about twenty other women and several men about the hijab.

“It’s amazing how much kindness people show you when you least expect it. Many Indonesians were like this. They showed you kindness and treated you like a part of the family when you didn’t really know if you’d ever see them again.”

“Many times I would randomly meet a person and start talking to them about my project and before I knew it I was conducting an informal interview…Because I don’t speak Bahasa Indonesian, all of my interviews were conducted in English, so most of the women and men were well-educated…they had all sorts of professions ranging from teachers to translators to students to secretaries to political activists to housewives.”

Melms’s ability to talk to complete strangers while alone in a foreign country comes from her inherent trust in the goodness of people, which she believes largely stems from her Midwestern roots. For example, while at the airport on her back to Jakarta from Banda Aceh, Melms met a man who, after talking with her about her research, gave Melms his phone number and asked her to meet his family since his wife and eldest daughter wore the hijab. “I could just as easily not have called him, but I decided to go for it.”

The next thing she knew, Melms was in a car on her way to his house to meet his wife and children. They treated her like a family member and talked openly about their Muslim faith. Melms noticed that the man’s eldest daughter wore a hijab while the younger daughter did not. When she asked why his youngest daughter did not wear a hijab he responded, “I don’t know, ask her.” Pleasantly surprised by his answer, Melms was happy to witness that decision to wear the hijab was truly an individual and personal choice. She found this to be the case among nearly every woman she was able to communicate with. When the man eventually drove her back to the airport a week later, he was almost in tears saying good-bye, and told her that she was like his own child. Melms also found herself teary-eyed.

Now that she has returned from the most populous Muslim nation of Indonesia, she is preparing for her Winter Session trip to the most populous Arab nation, Egypt. When asked if her research thesis has changed at all after her experience in Indonesia she was quick to reply. “My thesis has not changed at all; however, I do want to have more contacts in Egypt before I get there.”Melms hopes that upon completion of her research, she will have a more complete understanding of the hijab as well as Islam that will allow her to break the stereotypes that people have against Muslims. “One of the most important things I have learned so far is that, no matter what is going on the world politically, people are just people.”

Clowning with Patch Adams – D’Arcy Jeffery

by Darcy Jeffery

2010 began in a surprising way for me: a week-long clowning trip called “Clowning and Caring in Ecuador with Patch Adams,” then staying to travel through Ecuador and Colombia on my own. More than just a vacation, a volunteer week, or study-abroad program, this was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and it couldn’t have come at a better point in my life than in this post-graduation “gap” year. Before the trip and even en route I had some reservations. Would I be able to clown? How does one clown, and would I know what to do? There was only one way to know, and I found out that anyone can be a clown, even me! I discovered that it’s not about entertaining people or trying to be funny and humorous. Instead, it’s all about loving people, connecting so that you really see people and they see you, or at least your clown persona.

When you’re an entertainer for people, there is still a barrier between you, the performer, and your audience. However, when you clown with people, the barriers are broken, social divisions disappear, and it seems like anything is possible. One of my favorite examples of this happened on the day we clowned in a mental health facility. At first they thought we were there to perform – the chairs were set up facing the front end of the courtyard like a stage, patients were seated and nurses lined up like ushers along the side. We started by putting on a clown fashion show, but then something else started to happen, something almost magical. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but what began as a fashion show ended as one gigantic joyful dance party! Before the conga line happened, I shared a great moment with one of my dance partners. She threw her head back and laughed when I stuck my foot out, and then stuck her own foot out and improvised with delight. Clowning had melted away the barriers between audience and performers, clowns and patients, creating a new reality for everyone, well, almost everyone! The nurses still mostly stood by like ushers. A few joined in and I got at least one nurse to dance with me! Throughout the week there were many moments like this, and the same clown magic let strangers embrace, an entire village gather, and prisoners share their stories. But what would happen to the magic when our clown group dispersed to go our separate ways in the “real” world?

I’ve found that a red nose can do so much more than make someone smile. It can also create new realities, and carry a message for a better society.

Fast forward one month later and I’m on my own, staying in a hostal in the town of Otavalo, Ecuador. Every Saturday they have a huge textile market, and I was looking forward to exploring it. But this day the streets were a little less festive, and a steady rain seemed to foretell of a dreary day. It was as I was walking around, thinking what a shame it was to have such weather, that I saw the clown. I was so excited that I pulled out my own clown nose, ran up to him and took our picture! That gave me the courage and inspiration to wear my red nose, and suddenly, the world seemed like a very different place. People smiled when they saw the nose, real genuine smiles, and I couldn’t help but feel good and smile back. It completely transformed my day. The best part was that when I returned to my hostal, the three kids who lived there saw me with my nose and that led to perhaps my best clowning experience of all. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that barriers were broken once again, I became a kid, clown and big sister in one, and they became clowns as well.

So what now? I’ve found that a red nose can do so much more than make someone smile. It can also create new realities, and carry a message for a better society. The question I’d like to leave you with is: What kind of difference do you want to make in the world, what can you change right now, what kind of society can you imagine? Maybe all you need to get started is as simple as a red nose.

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