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Podcast: Lone Star Professor Inspires Students through Commitment to Democracy

By Holly Zahn | July 30, 2016

John Theis is organizing the Lone Star community college system around civic engagement to motivate students to enter into a dialogue about democracy.

Theis is a professor of political science at Lone Star College-Kingwood, one of seven Lone Star community college campuses in the greater Houston area. Since 2008, Theis has been building partnerships across the college system with the goal of integrating community engagement into every classroom. This effort has led to grants, student clubs, cross-campus deliberative dialogue forums and the creation of a new center for civic engagement.

“Communities are counting on colleges and universities to lead the revitalization of American democracy, and to really call on ordinary people to fulfill their role as citizens,” said Theis. “Colleges can do that in a way that other institutions cannot, and that’s why it’s so important that colleges rediscover that civic mission.”

Upon completing his doctoral degree in political science at the University of Arizona in 2000, Theis moved to Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife and two daughters for his first teaching assignment at Avila College. They purchased a home in an inner city neighborhood and soon discovered that a nearby Methodist church was closing as a result of lack of funding, as well as gentrification.

Theis worked with neighborhood associations, community members and state representatives to keep the church open. In the process, he applied the knowledge of organizing, politics and democracy from his education into a real world situation.

At the same time, a youth civic organizing model called Public Achievement, developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, was growing nationally. Theis met with leaders of the youth engagement initiative from Minnesota, including Harry Boyte, Jim Farr and Dennis Donovan. Together, they discussed the potential impact of college students mentoring young people regarding pressing issues in their communities. Theis resonated with the initiative’s mission.

“When I heard Dennis talk about this, a lightbulb just went off, and I thought, this is exactly what I am doing in the community. This is exactly the kind of program I can bring to my college students to teach them the real world of politics,” said Theis. “It’s not all about voting, the presidency and Congress; it’s about what ordinary people can actually do to improve their communities.”

Not only did Theis manage to keep the church open and help breathe new life into it with his community, but Public Achievement became the cornerstone of his teaching. In the classroom, he inspired students to think of themselves as powerful public agents of change, and he offered them real world skills. As a result, he saw his students taking on campus leadership roles to put their knowledge to practical use.

John Theis' kindergarten class in South Korea

John Theis (center front) with his kindergarten class in South Korea, February 14, 1967.

Theis grew up in South Korea where his parents served as missionaries in the decades following the Korean War. After viewing documentary footage of orphaned Korean children, Theis’ parents moved halfway across the world to address the post-war challenges through social welfare and education.

“A lot of the students were really active in the pro-democracy movements in South Korea, particularly in the 1970s to the 1980s, and I was growing up in that milieu,” said Theis. “So, I always thought that as individuals we have a duty to make our country better.”

A civic imperative has long been embedded in American higher education, dating back to the 1862 Morrill Act, which initiated the land-grant system. According to the Library of Congress, each state was given 30,000 acres of federal land per Congressional representative to be sold. Proceeds went to building public colleges with a civic mission, particularly focused on agriculture and technology development, that would serve the common good.

For Theis, the contemporary political landscape requires students to be knowledge seekers and active leaders in their local communities. He points to high rates of infant mortality, heavy pollution, income inequality, gender inequality and imprisonment in the United States as opportunities for education to help solve community problems.

“When colleges looked at the bigger questions of life — Why are we here, and what are we doing? What do we need to be powerful citizens? — we had much better success rates,” said Theis. “Students stayed in school because there was something more to college than just getting a job. College should be a transformative experience that makes you think about your most fundamental values, and changes who you are as a person.”