Some 70 first-year college students with common interests in government and politics lived and studied alongside one another for a year. The idea was to foster a different kind of connection between like-minded students that may not be made in class. Overall, the inaugural year of the Schar School Learning Community, Democracy Lab, was a success.
Resident Advisors (RAs) and fellow Schar School of Policy and Government students Ethan Thomas and Molly Reed were eager to reflect on the events of the year. Both government and international politics majors, Thomas and Reed supervised students in Mason’s Adams Hall throughout the year and facilitated community activities alongside the Schar School.
“I have been an RA for three years and I love the impact I can make on a resident's first-year experience, even if it is small,” Dallas-native Reed said. “I knew this would come with its own set of challenges, but I was excited at the idea of tailoring my work to something I was passionate about.”
Thomas, who hails from Chicago and will complete a congressional internship in Illinois this summer, was eager to help newer students with the transition to life at the Schar School and Mason. The RAs, Thomas observed, came to rely heavily on each other throughout the new endeavor. “A lot of being an RA is learning from experience,” Thomas said, “and having people there to support you the whole time has been extremely helpful.”
In addition to sharing a Fairfax Campus residence hall, the Democracy Lab students were encouraged to take part in frequent on- and off-campus activities. The RAs, Thomas said, balanced responsibilities between the Schar School and the university’s Housing and Residence Life department when tailoring events for political science- and government-minded students. “It sometimes requires more work from us as RAs,” he said, “but it’s cool because we can also curate required housing events into a political lens so our residents will enjoy them more.”
The RAs worked closely with Schar School faculty and staff—including former faculty community director and Associate Professor Peter Mandaville and undergraduate programs manager Gretchen Curry—to plan the Democracy Lab curriculum. “They’re our student perspective, so we rely heavily on their input,” Curry said of the collaboration.
Activities throughout the year consisted of debate watch parties, final exam study clinics led by the RAs, and attending a lecture by American philosopher and academic activist Cornel West. The highlight event of the year was the Democracy Lab’s trip to nearby Washington, D.C., where they visited the memorials of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. The students engaged in conversations with Mandaville about Mason’s role as a slave owner and his status as the “forgotten Founding Father,” as well as with a representative from the White House Historical Association about Thomas Jeffersons complex legacy.
Reflecting on their year leading the Democracy Lab, Thomas said, the learning community “offers people an opportunity not only to get connected to the Schar School itself by providing them opportunities to meet faculty members and to get involved in research opportunities, but it also gives them the opportunity to talk with other students in a more relaxed setting.”
Reed added that members of the Democracy Lab “are able to build community with other students passionate about political science and learn how to coexist with people with a variety of viewpoints. The Schar School has a responsibility to teach us to be promising political science scholars, but the Democracy Lab creates responsible neighbors.”