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National Agenda student and Let’s Talk RSO president Sansskruty
Rayavarapu (right) greets students on The Green as part of the Free
Intelligent Conversation project.
Each fall, the University of Delaware’s National Agenda
series brings prominent speakers to campus to share their insights into
current political issues with the UD community and the public.
For the audiences that pack Mitchell Hall during these talks, the
series is an exceptional opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from
political insiders, authors, journalists and activists.
But for UD undergraduates who enroll in the associated course, National Agenda is even more.
“We get to interact with all these speakers, and what’s amazing is
that they come to our class and talk to us and are usually very open in
what they say,” said Olivia Feldman, a junior political science major
who took the course last fall and found it so valuable that she signed
on to be the teaching assistant this year.
“And then they answer our questions and seem to really listen to us and care about our opinions.”
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Tara Setmayer (right), a CNN political commentator and former GOP
communications director, speaks informally with students in the National
Agenda class before her public talk in the speaker series Oct. 2.
National Agenda, which is hosted by UD’s Center for Political Communication
(CPC), has been offered annually since 2010. This year’s theme,
“Direction Democracy,” explores where we have been, where we are going
and the current state of democracy in America.
Students meet the speakers in their classroom and at dinner before
each public talk. They also undertake some group projects, which this
year has resulted in their participation in a national movement known as
Free Intelligent Conversation (FreeIC), which encourages meaningful
dialogue between strangers.
Students working on the project can be seen on The Green or in
Trabant University Center holding “Free Intelligent Conversation” signs
and a stack of cards that provide a conversation-starting question. (For
example, “What do you hate that you wish you loved?”)
FreeIC was just one of the group projects from which students could
choose this year, but it turned out to be the most popular, said Lindsay
Hoffman, who directs National Agenda and teaches the class. Its mission
of interpersonal engagement and civil discourse is a perfect fit for
the goals of the class, she said.
Speaking during the Free Intelligent Conversation project are
(from left) students Satvika Kadiyala and Mark Johnson and Jennifer
Lambe, professor of communication.
“National Agenda is an immersive experience for the students,”
said Hoffman, who is an associate professor of communication and
associate director of the CPC.
“In their interactions with the speakers and guests, they’re actually
doing what they’ve been learning to do — how to interact with people
from different backgrounds. The best experience comes when a speaker
turns out not to fit the stereotype the students may have had of that
Speakers are carefully selected to be a diverse group in terms of
their political and cultural backgrounds and views, Hoffman said. She
also sees the class as something of a life-skills learning experience
where young adults can develop their ability to talk with others in a
respectful way but without being intimidated.
Students say that’s what they have found in the class.
Sansskruty Rayavarapu, a junior majoring in political science, said
she especially appreciated the chance to speak with Tara Setmayer, a CNN
political commentator and former GOP communications director, who met
with students before her talk on Oct. 2. Although she didn’t agree with
Setmayer’s conservative perspective, she said she was impressed with
“She put such a big emphasis on listening to people,” Rayavarapu said. “It really allowed me to see a different perspective.”
Student Jagger McFarland agreed, saying, “It’s a different way of
hearing what people have to say when you’re in the same room with them.”
For Hoffman, the class is not just about discussing political issues
but also helping students to develop the skills they’ll need throughout
life as they interact with others.
“My goal is to make students active citizens who respect other people
— even if they have different opinions — and to be engaged in the
world,” she said.
Kyle Emile (left), founder of the national Free Intelligent
Conversation initiative, visits with College of Arts and Sciences Dean
John A. Pelesko during a visit to UD in October.
National Agenda students who chose the FreeIC initiative as their
group project this semester have taken the ball and enthusiastically run
with it, not only seeking out strangers to engage in conversation but
also planning to continue the effort through a new registered student
organization called Let’s Talk.
Free Intelligent Conversation is a national nonprofit organization founded by Kyle Emile, who said that we all need to talk to strangers more than ever.
In 2013, as an undergraduate psychology student, he set out to prove
that, just by holding a sign in a public place, anyone can create
meaningful dialogue between strangers. He and a group of friends began
the project in Chicago, where the response to the signs was large,
diverse and overwhelmingly positive, and the organization has been
expanding ever since.
In October, Emile visited UD to speak with the National Agenda
and Let’s Talk students on campus who were regularly standing on The
Green with their signs offering a “Free Intelligent Conversation” to
The objectives of the movement include celebrating each other’s
differences, creating places where people can talk about anything and
encouraging meaningful, face-to-face conversations.
At UD, although the project came about through National Agenda, the conversations aren’t generally political.
“We talk about any subject,” said Rayavarapu, who is serving as
president of the new RSO. “It sometimes becomes political, but that’s
not the goal. The goal is to engage with each other.”
The National Agenda students are not only inviting and participating
in these conversations but also conducting research for the class
project. Through the use of a questionnaire, they hope to measure the
levels of engagement that occur under various circumstances.
National Agenda continues its “Direction Democracy” theme with its final two 2019 speakers.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a 1984
UD alumnus of the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke Nov. 6 on
“Deciphering Political Power.” A former federal prosecutor, Christie is the author of a new book,
Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of
In-Your-Face Politics. Learn more about his National Agenda talk in this UDaily article.
The speaker series will conclude on Wednesday, Nov. 20, when John Della Volpe, director of polling at the
Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, will speak on “Measuring
Millennials.” He is the founder of SocialSphere, a public opinion and
analytics company, and frequently appears on national media outlets.
talk begins at 7:30 p.m. in Mitchell Hall and, like all events in this
series, is free and open to the public. Registration, at this website, is optional but recommended for Della Volpe’s appearance.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Andre Smith and Evan Krape; video by Paul Puglisi and Jason Hinmon
Published Nov. 8, 2019