Nevins Fellows Program introduces students to democracy

Amanda Miller, Anna Thoet
September 25, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State students interested in participating in the Nevins Fellows Program, which provides undergraduate students at Penn State the opportunity to complete paid internships at organizations that promote democracy, can still register for PLSC 209/CAS 209 Democratic Leadership. The course begins on Sept. 27 and will run through Oct. 25. It will meet Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m. in 311 Boucke. At the conclusion of the Democratic Leadership course, 12 students will be selected by the McCourtney Institute staff to complete an internship next summer.

Chris Beem, professor of political science and the managing director of the McCourtney Institute of Democracy, teaches the Democratic Leadership course and leads the Nevins Fellows Program alongside John Gastil, professor of communication arts and sciences and political science and senior scholar at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

"What made all this possible was a generous gift from Penn State alumnus David Nevins,” said Gastil. “He and I had both attended a conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and we had similar ideas about how to improve American democracy. It begins with introducing the next generation of young citizens to a better way of governing ourselves—through deliberation and empathy, rather than unending partisan warfare. The Nevins Fellows don't become naive about the realities of politics, but they learn alternative modes of community engagement, public discussion and policymaking."

Graciela Bolanos is one of those Nevins Fellows. She worked for the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs in the City of Pittsburgh last summer where she assisted with the logistics and analysis of the deliberative community forums carried out by the Office of Community Affairs. During her internship, she worked in coalition with Welcoming Pittsburgh, the Mayor’s initiative to encourage multicultural diversity in the city, and carried out independent research in the Latino community. Bolanos realized the “significant differences in the ways that the Latino community approached decision-making, versus native Pittsburgh residents” and credited the Democratic Leadership class with providing her the theoretical support to be successful in her internship.

Alexis Burke participated in the Nevins Fellows Program this past summer. Burke is an aspiring Paterno Fellow majoring in political science and public relations. Over the summer she worked for the Participatory Budgeting Project in Brooklyn, New York. Burke first heard about the Nevins Fellows Program while looking for a course to fulfill the Paterno Fellows honors requirement. As a political science major, a class on democratic leadership sounded like something she should be doing, and she was pleasantly surprised with what she learned.

Alexis Burke at her summer internship

Alexis Burke

IMAGE: Jenna Spinelle

“I didn’t expect it to be about as much bipartisanship as it is,” Burke explained. “It was about completely ignoring party lines and focusing on the issues at hand and leading people into democratic deliberation.”

During the semester, students were assigned readings and discussed them in class, answering questions like what does it mean to be democratically engaged; how can we create this civic conversation in our community; and what does it mean to facilitate these conversations? Occasionally on Saturdays, students had the opportunity to network and speak with representatives from organizations promoting democracy. It was during one of these workshops that Burke heard about the Participatory Budgeting Project.

The Participatory Budgeting Project is a nonprofit organization that empowers people by allowing them to decide how to spend public money. In the city of New York, each district is allocated upwards of $1 million for community projects. The Participatory Budgeting Project brings the community together to brainstorm what they want to see in their community, with the goal of revitalizing democracy and increasing civic engagement.

“In some areas, it could be as simple as putting doors on bathroom stalls in the elementary school because there was a need for that in the community,” said Burke. “In other communities, it could be adding more flowers to the park or supporting public art projects.”

What made her time with the organization so enjoyable was how integrated she was with the team.

“The best part of my internship was the community. They really engrossed me into their team right away. I was worried I’d be running for coffee and getting newspapers, but I was doing real, tangible projects. The Nevins Fellows Program really opened up doors for me that I never thought would be available.”

Burke hopes to one day attend law school and credits the program with allowing her new opportunities and helping her understand what it means to be a leader.

Beem said, “Both Alexis and Graciela interned at organizations that are doing important work to advance democracy and empower citizens in communities around the country. They did a great job in the democratic leadership course and in their internships and have bright futures ahead of them.”

"In just three short years, the Nevins Fellows Program has grown from a bold experiment to a national institution,” said Gastil. “There are now dozens of innovative civic organizations and government offices seeking to bring our students on board for two months as paid interns. The program has introduced dozens of Penn State students to new career ideas, and it has put the McCourtney Institute for Democracy on the map in the civic reform community."

Penn State students who are interested in participating in the program should register for PLSC 209/CAS 209 Democratic Leadership. The course begins Sept. 27 and will run through Oct. 25. For more information, visit the McCourtney Instutite for Democracy’s website:

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 04, 2018