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The Unify Challenge College Bowl: Turning Hot-Button Political Issues into Experiential Civic Learning

Morgan Lasher

Morgan Lasher

May 16, 2023

Jan 16, 2024

The Unify Challenge College Bowl: Turning Hot-Button Political Issues into Experiential Civic Learning
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In March 2023, the nonpartisan nonprofit Unify America partnered with leaders and professors from 42 universities across the country to offer the 4th biannual Unify Challenge College Bowl. Over six nights, thousands of student participants across 26 states joined the virtual Unify Challenge to share perspectives across differences and strengthen their civic muscles. 

“Across our country and even on college campuses, we see a crisis of democracy with increasing polarization and a lack of civility. Engendering civil dialogue on campus is a key priority for us at UND, so we were delighted to discover an opportunity for our student body to participate and practice these critical skills,” says Dr. Jeffrey Holm, Vice Provost for Strategic Programming & Special Initiatives at the University of North Dakota.

Here’s how the Unify Challenge College Bowl works: Two college students—total strangers from different schools with different political leanings, geographical locations, or backgrounds—are matched into a one-on-one guided video conversation to talk about pressing issues and goals for the country. 

“Instead of seeing our different perspectives as a challenge, what if viewpoint diversity was actually our superpower? Respectful listeners who can share and connect across different perspectives are the kind of leaders we need for our future,” explains Michelle Sobel, President of Unify America, whose organization is leveraging technology and games to reduce political polarization and teach collaborative problem-solving skills. “We set out to build a program that could offer low-risk, but high-impact experiential learning, while also cultivating the leadership skills that college students—and our nation—need for the future.”

Since the program’s inception in October 2021, almost 4,000 students and 160 professors have participated.

But the students and professors don’t just study the field of political science. They represented a vast variety of departments and courses, including social work, criminal justice, history, gender studies, nutrition, atmospheric sciences, biomedical sciences, space studies, and aviation.

Jason Evans, an assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, puts it this way: “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 as human relations, emotional intelligence, and conflict management, to prepare students to serve as effective aircrew members.”

Also, since its inception in 2021, 98% of all participating professors surveyed would consider using the Unify Challenge again in their classrooms.

Most importantly for Unify America and its collegiate partners, the students were wowed by the experience. After the College Bowl, students are encouraged to submit a feedback survey. Here’s the post-assessment data from the students across the country:

  • 81% rated the experience an 8 or higher (on a scale of 1-10)
  • 87% felt heard and not judged when they shared their opinions
  • 68% said they wished they had more opportunities to talk openly about these topics
  • 82% said it helped them see a new perspective that hadn't considered before
  • 71% felt more hopeful about the future of our democracy after taking the Unify Challenge
  • And 55% said they were more likely to vote in the upcoming election

Add your university to the College Bowl

Interested in bringing the Unify Challenge to your classroom or university? Learn more & save your spot for the upcoming College Bowl today.

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At the end of the survey, students can record a short video about their experience. In one clip, University of North Dakota student Cade says, "I was really kind of nervous to meet somebody new, but as we started talking more, the more I started to realize that I have a lot more in common with this person that I had been led to believe." 

"It gave me a lot of hope for more unity in this country,” shares William, a student at the University of North Dakota. Here’s a 90-second video that spotlights five of those student voices.

In addition to the University of North Dakota, participating colleges and centers represent a wide variety of learners from students at four-year public institutions to community colleges and military academies. Those colleges include Baldwin Wallace University, Bridgewater State University, Brigham Young University, College of DuPage, Colorado State University, Community College of Baltimore County, Emporia State University, Ferris State University, Florida International University, Furman University, Gustavus Adolphus College, Lone Star College-Tomball, Miami Dade College, Mississippi State University, Ohio University, Oregon State University, Radford University, San Antonio College, Shepherd University, South Dakota State University, St. John's University, United States Air Force Academy, University of Akron, University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Central Arkansas, University of Central Florida, University of Delaware Biden Institute, University of Denver, University of Findlay, University of Houston - Downtown, University of Illinois @ Chicago, University of Indianapolis, University of Oklahoma, University of Southern California, University of St. Thomas, University of Texas - Tyler, Wake Forest University, Weber State University, Western Michigan University, and William Jewell College

For more information on Unify America or the Unify Challenge College Bowl, please contact Morgan Lasher at morgan@unifyamerica.org.

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