Students tackle political, social issues in Deliberation Nation

Penn State freshman Abby Hartzell leads students and community members in a discussion on immigration as part of Deliberation Nation, held at Webster's Café in State College on March 1. Credit: Emilee Spokus / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How should the United States approach immigration? It’s a topic of ongoing debate in politics and the news; it was also the subject of a student-led discussion in Deliberation Nation, a ten-day series of deliberative discussions organized by first-year students.


“It is such a prevalent issue in current events today, especially with the recent executive order which implemented an immigration ban on a number of Muslim-majority countries,” said Julia Barbon, a freshman international politics major. “This is particularly an important topic for students and community members to reflect on because it truly affects so many of those around us. Penn State has a beautifully diverse population, and so the issue of immigration or a ban affects us all as a united community.”


As part of a class assignment in Rhetoric and Civic Life, Barbon and seven of her classmates organized a discussion at Webster’s Café in State College that invited students and community members to talk about the immigration issue. But this was not the kind of debate you might see on the evening news; it was a carefully orchestrated deliberation.


“We find ourselves in a time when an ability to listen to one another, to weigh options, and understand why people see the world the way they do is vital,” said Lori Bedell, co-director of Rhetoric and Civic Life and senior lecturer in communication arts and sciences. “Deliberation Nation teaches students how to do this, how to facilitate such conversations.”


For Barbon’s classmate, Kelsie Lucas, the deliberative format of the discussion provided a safe space to open up to people different from herself. “Deliberation is important for members of society to become better versed on a political topic, while feeling safe to share their beliefs, and have the ability to reach a more common ground with those whom they may feel alienated from,” she said.


Beyond immigration, the Deliberation Nation series included more than 50 deliberations on a range of topics including sexual assault on campus, the media’s role in elections, the opioid epidemic, and the impact of technology on children. A total of 563 students and 78 community members, including State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and Chief of Police John Gardner, participated in at least one discussion.


“The deliberations are devised and framed by the students,” Bedell explains. “It’s up to them to pick the topics and apply what they’ve learned about deliberative frameworks to make this happen.”


For Barbon, the takeaways from the coursework she did in preparation and the event itself exceeded her expectations: “This assignment has been eye opening and meaningful because the format was deliberative rather than structured as a debate. It was a discussion that encouraged the group to think together and move towards a consensus rather than argue and pick sides. It was more productive and reflective.”


The deliberation made classmate Kate Sweeney, a freshman majoring in English, realize how challenging it is to formulate, even theoretically, an immigration policy that everyone finds agreeable. “Based on varying value systems, we all hold certain ideals, such as safety or fairness, in higher degrees,” said Sweeney. “These ideals prompt us to favor certain policies. What’s important is that we listen and appreciate what others bring to the table.”


Barbon added, “Everyone you meet has different life experiences, which helped form their values and their opinions, and they are all valid even if they are not what I specifically believe,” she said.


Rhetoric and Civic Life is a two-semester course, giving students and the instructor more time to get to know each other. The honors course is offered jointly through the Departments of English and Communication Arts and Sciences and is available to students in the Paterno Fellows Program, Schreyer Honors College, and Millennium Scholars Program. The course is sponsored by the Center for Democratic Deliberation in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. To learn more about the course, visit

Last Updated March 08, 2017