By Yazan Hanouneh, AU SPA ’20
Something unique to our education at American University is the idea of being academically engaged at all times. When students step out of their classrooms, they know that there are endless educational opportunities at AU and across D.C. There is no end to the knowledge we as AU students can seek, from on- and off-campus events to downtown internships.
What’s even more unique to AU is what our students congregate around and get excited about. The Super Bowl? Just another Sunday. But election night? Students can either attend one of a seemingly infinite number of watch parties on campus or join their entire residence hall floor with their eyes glued to the TV. This trait comes from an inherent desire within AU students to contribute to the world around them, affirming a commitment to public service that has defined American University for over 125 years.
These unique characteristics of AU yield two interesting questions:
- How can we bring these aspects together to provide students with an educational opportunity that will inspire them to amplify their commitment to public service?
- How do we have civil and educational conversations on the ideals of this commitment to public service?
One of the most powerful solutions to these questions are speaker engagement events, which provide students with access to some of the most powerful changemakers from across the globe. These events allow students to engage with leaders and ideas they either celebrate or disagree with.
At AU, the majority of these major speaking events are hosted by the Kennedy Political Union (KPU) within the AU Student Government. For 50 years, KPU has served as the student-run, student-funded, and nonpartisan lecture group on AU’s campus, helping to inspire students and initiate difficult conversations by inviting global and local leaders with various political ideologies to speak at AU. You may have attended some of our most recent events with the Parkland Students, Loretta Lynch, Elizabeth Warren, Carly Fiorina, and Malala Yousafzai.
In KPU, we play an important role in promoting civil discourse and discussion on AU’s campus by giving students the opportunity to explore topics further and get excited about inspiring leaders. When Malala Yousafzai came, students waited in line for hours just for a chance to hear her speak on girls’ education. And when the Parkland Students came, we filled up Bender Arena and brought the national discussion on gun control and civic engagement down to AU’s campus.
But beyond the excitement that speakers generate, there is real benefit to bringing them to campus, even the controversial ones. These speakers provide valuable insight and inspiration for students seeking careers in service, even if students have different perspectives about our events. One student may leave saying “I am so inspired by this speaker and I want to be just like them one day,” while another may say “I strongly disagree with what they said and I’m going to commit myself to pursuing the opposite policies that I believe in.”
This is the value in bringing speakers to campus and how KPU answers the questions posed above about our commitment to public service. Students constantly get excited about the events KPU hosts and use them as a means for civil conversation. The power of KPU events is not just what students experience at the lecture, but rather the conversations an event will ignite elsewhere on campus.
One prime example of this was when we hosted the Parkland students on campus. Prior to the event, one student had written an article highlighting why they didn’t think KPU should bring David Hogg to campus. After they posted the article on Facebook, multiple students proceeded to comment on their post respectfully disagreeing. These individuals then continued to engage in respectful debate over this issue and even after the event these conversations continued elsewhere on campus, such as in the lounges of the first-year residence halls.
Since KPU does not take a stance on any of the speakers we bring, this conversation is one of the greatest indicators of a successful event, as it has achieved its purpose of stimulating dialogue on campus.
As the Director of KPU, I work with 19 other passionate students on our team to decide which speakers we invite to our campus. We work our hardest to ensure that students have the opportunity to hear from leaders from a variety of ideological backgrounds and that we use our resources to amplify the voices of marginalized and underrepresented communities. It’s not only a key mission of our work, but a responsibility.
This responsibility to provide a forum for students to engage in civil discourse is especially relevant in our current political climate, where it is often easy to disregard other opinions as invalid. Guest speakers help break down that barrier by establishing a sense of credibility in what is brought to the conversation, even the controversial ones. More importantly, civil conversation is what helps unite us, and it’s important that we continue to take advantage of it during our time at American University.
Yazan Hanouneh is a Junior at American University studying Political Science. He currently serves as the Director of the Kennedy Political Union and as an AUx1 Peer Facilitator. Previously, he served as the President of the AU College Democrats.