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The Politics of Transformation

The Politics of Transformation
Gretchen Van Dyke, Ph.D., (seated, third from left) is joined by members of the first EU class of 1996 representing Sweden. From left: (1st row) Gregor Weeks, John Leardi, Dr. Van Dyke, Daniel Feliciano; (2nd row) Heather Kelsall, Heather Leo, Michelle Mauro, Joan Sugrue, Nora Deveau, Meagan Schaefer, Sandra Lewis, Lauren McCarthy; (3rd row) Peter Swift, Jason LeBoeuf, Brian Saemann, Matthew Henry.

Learning is an accretive process, a gradual building up of knowledge over time. Transformation, however, is sudden, dramatic, a lightning strike that makes a person completely new. Transformation is what comes to mind when students of Dr. Gretchen Van Dyke’s “PS 331: The European Union” talk about the experience.

“The seminar seemed like an intense workload that involved a LOT of public speaking, something that terrified me,” said Heather Leo ‘97, who took the course in 1996, the first time it was offered. “Dr. Van Dyke, however, was sure I was up to the task and thought it would help me gain confidence in my communication skills. I trusted her instincts and found that I became very passionate about the role I was assigned. I soon felt less awkward and actually began to enjoy sharing my opinion.”

Keri Taylor ‘10 took the course in 2009. “I was nervous, timid and self-conscious at the beginning ... but by the second day of the simulation, my confidence level was light years beyond where it was when I first began. I really came out of my shell.”

Leo and Taylor are talking about the crown jewel of the course, the European Union (EU) simulation that occurs in Washington, D.C., each fall. The simulation demands that students inhabit an “alter ego,” including actual members of the European Parliament (MEP), the legislative body of the EU. During the simulation, students representing various EU member states debate proposed legislation. Throughout the three-day event, students are challenged to sharpen their rhetoric, deploy strategy and outfox the villains, all while thinking and speaking as their alter ego would.

During his simulation, PJ Tabit ‘11 was Bendt Bendtsen, a conservative member of the Danish delegation. Becoming Bendtsen did not demand acting so much as it required meticulous research and the self-discipline to replace his own arguments with those of Bendtsen.

“The class is about more than just the European Union, your assigned country or any of the particular academic information you gather during the semester,” Tabit said. “That’s all valuable, but the class’s true strength lies in the opportunity to think strategically and work with your colleagues, both those who agree with you and those who don’t, to achieve a shared goal.”

Dr. Van Dyke, associate professor of political science, acknowledged that active and experiential learning is what it’s all about. “I had some seminar-style courses myself as an undergrad, and I loved that kind of learning environment. Students who take the class know they’ll stretch, they’ll work very hard, but they’ll put what they learn into practice in the simulation.”

Her students always amaze her, Dr. Van Dyke said. The students come to know the issues and the way the EU functions so intimately that the creative solutions they devise impress actual diplomats. The class visits their assigned country’s embassy and meets diplomats with whom Dr. Van Dyke always shares the simulation’s outcomes.

Throughout the experience, Dr. Van Dyke pushes her students to ponder what’s transpiring. “There’s a lot of reflection, even on the bus going home when everyone’s completely exhausted. Weeks later there’s a one-on-one meeting with me. My biggest question then is, ‘How have you grown, academically and intellectually, of course, but also personally?’”

This last question, Dr. Van Dyke said, helps explain the College of Arts and Sciences’ continuous support of the course, which has enrolled more than 250 CAS students since it inclusion in the curriculum in 1996.

According to Scranton senior Olivia Salama, a participant in this year’s simulation, the trip was unlike any experience she’s had in college. She was forced to view important issues through the lens of other cultures. Also, the hard work and the need to play as a team formed a close bond among the classmates that doesn’t usually occur in a classroom. She calls it “a great example of experiential learning” that she won’t soon forget.

With the emphasis on reflection, coupled with a global outlook and questions about what it means to be a citizen, the EU simulation program represents the ideals of Jesuit learning, complete with its ultimate goal — a true metanoia.

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