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Our American democracy is in crisis, and colleges are feeling the effects. According to a 2022 poll by Generation Lab, almost half of college sophomores wouldn't room with someone who supported the opposing candidate in the 2020 election, and the Pew Research Center continues to show a rapid increase in Americans viewing members of the other party as “immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded.”
Yikes! It’s no wonder many college students are reluctant to weigh in on political topics for fear of alienation from their peers and that professors struggle to encourage students to participate in debates over America’s most prominent issues. After all, how can we teach civic skills when civil conversations seem nearly impossible?
With rising polarization across our country and college communities, the nonpartisan nonprofit Unify America partnered with University of North Dakota leaders and faculty from 41 other universities nationwide to offer the 4th biannual Unify Challenge College Bowl in February and March 2023.
The concept of the College Bowl is simple; College students who have never met before and could have different political leanings or backgrounds are matched up for a guided one-on-one video chat about the most important goals for our country. And from our first College Bowl, piloted in October 2021, it’s been a hit with professors and students alike! Today, we’ve partnered with 79 universities, including a recent and impactful partnership with the University of North Dakota.
To participate in the College Bowl, students completed a short sign-up form and chose one of the 12 available dates for the Unify Challenge. On the day of the event, they logged in and met their partner from different ideological or geographic backgrounds. Together, the pair went through a guided survey of 17 goals for America, covering topics from free speech and criminal justice to immigration and education. Students praised the experience, surprised to find more agreement across subjects than expected, resulting in more hope for the future of our democracy.
At UND, the College Bowl found champions in the board of trustees, Vice Provost for Strategic Programming & Special Initiatives Jeff Holm, and Educational Opportunities Casey Hoffman Officer. What sets UND apart from other participating schools is how Holm and Hoffman incentivized professor participation. By offering a stipend of $250 through the Teaching Transformation and Development Academy at UND, faculty members who incorporated the Unify Challenge College Bowl into their curriculum could receive compensation for their efforts.
This approach proved successful, with 15 University of North Dakota professors utilizing the program in their courses and 194 students being matched with partners from different perspectives. That's almost 12% of the total number of this Bowl’s participants!
UND students contributed a broad spectrum of ideologies:
It's also worth noting that participating professors weren't just political science educators. They represented a wide variety of fields and disciplines, including:
Get the lowdown on the University of North Dakota's Spring 2023 Unify Challenge College Bowl journey in the official case study!
The leadership and professors at UND were particularly impressed with the program. 9 out of 10 was the average rating of the College Bowl experience from UND professors, and 100% of them said they would recommend the Unify Challenge to colleagues. A few comments from their feedback surveys include:
"I am certainly proud of how both the faculty and students saw the value in the goals of the program and willingly gave of their time to participate. Thank you for making us aware of this opportunity, and we look forward to continuing to participate. It aligns so well with our campus goal of bringing the members of our campus together during times of great societal polarization."
— Andrew P. Armacost, President, University of North Dakota
“Thank you for developing this -- it is so incredibly important to start finding ways to have people talk to each other and to find out that "others" are not the extremist that social media and political pundits want us to think they are…All 40 of my students who participated said that this was an incredibly valuable experience and that they highly valued the opportunity to learn that they could have important conversations with people from other places.”
— Tami Carmichael, Professor, Theatre Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies
“This was a unique opportunity for my students to overcome their fears of discussing political topics with someone who may view things differently. This is valuable for my course in particular because we cover many topics, such human relations, emotional intelligence, and conflict management, to prepare students to serve as effective aircrew members.”
— Jason Evans, Assistant Professor, Aviation
After the Spring 2023 Unify Challenge: College Bowl, we asked students how they felt before the Challenge and if talking with their partner changed how they felt. Here's a video that includes five of those voices. Separately, during the feedback survey, we collected anonymous UND student feedback:
“It was good to be put into a situation with a stranger to talk about things I wouldn't normally talk about.”
“I think communication is key to solving a lot of issues in the world, and I love that this forum gives people the opportunity for open discussion.”
“I learned that people are not as split as the media and politics try to portray.”
Students were also asked to rate the program on a variety of factors:
Thanks to the leadership champions and incentives, the College Bowl was a success at UND. The positive feedback from the students and the leadership at UND speaks to the importance of programs like this in fostering hope and dialogue in our communities.
We're looking forward to continuing to expand the Unify Challenge College Bowl to more universities in the future! Interested in adding your university or college to the next bi-annual College Bowl? Learn more here: https://unifyamerica.org/college-bowl
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