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The Democracy Project at SOU: An Opportunity for Learning and Leadership

Editor's note: This is the first of six weekly installments of "Dispatches from India" about Southern Oregon University Honors College students' trip to India this month to learn more about democracy in action. Read the second installment here.

When Southern Oregon University launched its Honors College in 2013, one of the goals was to provide opportunities for the students to transform themselves from learners into leaders. These opportunities have included a cohort-model in which students take their general-education courses together, a unique community mentor program, and co-curricular initiatives like, “Take the Lead Projects,” and “The Democracy Project.”

On Sept. 11, as we commemorate the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, and remember those who lost their lives that day, the need for conflict resolution, responsible global citizenship and the spread of democracy is greater than ever. To solve shared challenges of the 21st century, emerging leaders need a solid understanding of how democracy is perceived, implemented and promoted around the world. The Democracy Project (DP) is a comprehensive international examination of democracy that includes its historical evolution, the roles of women and minority groups, and concepts such as sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, patriotism, imperialism, freedom, liberty, security and equality.

In the first phase of the Democracy Project, DP participants will examine the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Alexis De Tocqueville and Mohandas Gandhi, among others, to see how concepts and applications of democratic principles have influenced societies around the globe, focusing initially on comparing and contrasting democratic processes in the United States and India. DP participants will examine criteria in the Democracy Index and articles in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They will do a comparative analysis of constitutions around the world on various jurisdictional levels, keeping in mind questions such as, “What is the proper role of government?” and, “In a democracy, what is the appropriate balance between individual liberties and collective human rights?” DP participants will examine the threats and challenges to democracy in the 21st Century, and the degree to which the promotion of sustainable democracy is valuable, and at what potential cost.

In India, the DP students from SOU will meet with members of parliament, Indian civil-service and foreign-service officials, Supreme Court representatives and the governor of one of the Indian states. They will visit the United States embassy, attend various cultural events and meet with journalists, university professors and Indian college students.

Over the next several weeks, Southern Oregon University students who are traveling to India as part of the Democracy Project will write “Dispatches from India” on particular topics relating to their studies. Their impressions and reflections will center on the following themes:

• “Comparative Democratic Systems: What India Can Learn From Us, and What We Can Learn From India”;

• “Human Rights and the Quality of Life Index”;

• “International Expressions: Reflecting Cultural Values Through The Arts”;

• “The Global Classroom: Participatory International Learning”; and

• “The Role and Contributions of Women.”

We invite you to follow the students’ progress in India as they explore “the world’s largest democracy.” Then, on April 22, 2016, we will host approximately 160 high-school students from 12 local high schools on the campus of SOU. The event draws on our students’ experiences in India. Through role-playing exercises, the SOU students will act as facilitators and moderators, teaching the high-school students more about international democracy, negotiation and conflict resolution.

Ben Barnes, an SOU Honors College Scholar in the Class of 2018 and a Democracy Project participant, observed, “I had a hard time deciding what university to attend until I heard about the SOU Honors College. During my freshman year, I was very impressed with the cohort-based learning environment and the challenging Honors College curriculum. I know that in and out of the classroom, I am pushed by my fellow honors college scholars to think globally and achieve more than I thought possible. I’m really excited about taking the knowledge I’ll gain from traveling in India and using it in a hands-on way to teach high school students who will be visiting SOU in April.”

Micalea Saling, a transfer student to SOU from Eagle Point, added, “I started my university experience at a school with over 28,000 students, and realized quickly that it wasn’t for me. When I discovered the opportunities to become involved in international learning experiences like the Democracy Project, I decided to transfer to Southern Oregon University. I am forever grateful for the connections I’ve made with my fellow Honors College scholars, and thankful for the support given to me by professors who show a genuine interest in my intellectual growth and career success.”