Since becoming Capitol Experience Day coordinator at Civic Nebraska, I have been continually blown away by the great work and impact this civic health program creates for students across Nebraska. With each group comes more learning opportunities, unique experiences, and interpersonal connections with students’ state representatives.
As the program continues to grow and develop, there is a conscious effort to disperse this experience with individuals of different backgrounds and perspectives, as well as maintaining connections with high school government classes.
Students from Omaha North High School came to the Capitol this year to learn how journalism manifests itself at the statehouse. The students observed the Nebraska Legislature in session, simulated a press conference with their state senator, Tony Vargas, as well as shared their astute reporting with their classmates. The students also heard from Paul Hammel, a reporter from The Omaha World-Herald who reports and writes about state government and the Legislature. The students asked him questions and got feedback from this experienced journalist, who offered a glimpse into what is really like to be a reporter. Several students shared with me that visiting the Capitol has influenced their decision to explore a career in journalism.
As part of the Husker Writers program, college students partnered with Lincoln North Star High School students to present three written bill proposals and testimonies to their state senator, Adam Morfeld. One of these bill proposals was to implement a mental health program in Lincoln public schools in order to concentrate on the growing number of students suffering from various mental health issues. A high-school student shared her personal testimony about her experiences with depression and her desire to have more support in school. The Nebraska U. professor leading this partnership, Rachael Wendler Shah, said: “Thank you for coordinating this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show my students that they always have the chance to share their research, testimonies, and ideas to make real change.”
In another ambitious project, Civic Nebraska connected with multiple English Language Learner classrooms in Lincoln to facilitate four Capitol Experience Days specifically designed to accommodate the needs and goals of its students. This was a new addition this spring to the Capitol Experience Day program that encouraged high school students with a variety of English capabilities to meet their state representatives.
Senators Matt Hansen, Patty Pansing Brooks, and Anna Wishart; and Judge of the Nebraska Court of Appeals Riko Bishop, Supreme Court Justice William Cassel, and Supreme Court Justice Stephanie Stacey contributed their time to talk with students. In addition, the students facilitated their own mock hearings over a variety of bill topics, including texting while driving and net neutrality. From my perspective, I witness the students understanding that their voices matter even as high school students and immigrants. It was a joy to welcome these students, and I hope to do so next year.
Reaching a younger audience
The focus of Capitol Experience Days has traditionally been facilitated and targeted towards high school students. However, there is a need for its presence in younger students’ lives as well. This past school year, I have facilitated Capitol Experience Days days for students from Omaha Brownell Talbot and Lewis and Clark middle schools in the spring, as well as Sherman and Lothrop elementary schools this summer. While it is fair to question the engagement and focus of younger students in this particular setting, in my experience these are among the most engaged students I’ve encountered. One Sherman student said he loved meeting “the important people” and asking them questions.
Civic Nebraska is also welcoming students from across Nebraska. In 2018 we have hosted government classes from Superior High School and Central Valley High School. Both groups traveled for a total of four hours, but it was worth the time and distance. For many, this was their first visit to the Capitol building. They were so impressed, and loved hearing about the history of the building. Students also connected with their districts’ representatives and shared their specific concerns. A Superior High School student said, “I like to share my perspective and this (experience) has given me an understanding of how I can make sure my voice is heard.”
— Madison Hilbert
For more information on Capitol Experience Days, click here.