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RU Ready teaches civic engagement to high school students near Rutgers

Having expanded to Rutgers—Newark and other universities, RU Ready will bring students all together in its annual Young Leaders Conference, held online this year due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. – Photo by Center for Youth Political Participation / Facebook

RU Ready, a civic education program for high school students, has continued its activities in spite of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and is expanding to universities in the state and across the country.

The program was launched approximately 10 years ago at New Brunswick High School with the aim of teaching young adults how to become engaged in democratic processes, said Elizabeth Matto, associate research professor and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.

The program holds that civic education should not be limited to the facts and figures of American history but should also empower students to feel competent and engaged in American politics, she said.

“You're not born knowing what it means to be an informed and engaged member of your community,” Matto said. “It's not genetic to know how to be a democratic citizen. It needs to be taught, and civic education is important.”

RU Ready assembles a team of Rutgers—New Brunswick students every spring semester, who take a course on topics related to American democracy and civic engagement and apply what they have learned toward making workshops for New Brunswick High School students, she said. These workshops have been conducted virtually this year due to the pandemic.

Matto said they are geared toward the issues that matter most to those high school students, while providing them with the tools they need to engage with societal issues, such as knowing the roles of their elected officials, how to contact them and how to participate in elections.

“Students are not only gaining information about how to be politically involved, (but) they're (also) actually learning skills and have a sense of confidence so that they can participate in politics — not necessarily just when they're an adult,” she said. “They could be participating in politics right now.”

Former RU Ready intern Cecilia Ritacco, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said her experience with the program was overwhelmingly positive and served as a reminder that civic engagement is not limited to Election Day but includes continual participation in one’s community, such as through service, calling officials and attending town halls.

“Teaching young people that politics affects everything — from the water we drink to the air we breathe — was a really meaningful experience and one that reminded me of how critical it is to engage in these important dialogues not only during an election cycle but (also) year-round,” she said. 

RU Ready intern Sara Rubiano, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said she has been motivated to continue her participation in the program by its visible impact on students whose school system has not equipped them with the knowledge to make their voices heard. After a program session two weeks ago, for instance, one student messaged her that she now had a better idea of how to act on an issue that she had been passionate about.

“This program is in place to ensure that students are learning beyond just a 10th grade U.S. history,” Rubiano said. “Giving students an avenue for them … to feel heard is really important, especially when you come from a low socioeconomic background.”

Matto said RU Ready addresses a gap in civic education programs across the state, given that high-quality civic education is often limited to wealthy students or those in advanced placement programs.

“Lessons in citizenship need to be delivered to all students because all members of American democracy are part of American democracy and need to be equipped and encouraged to participate in American democracy,” she said.

In the past few years, RU Ready has branched out to other schools both nearby and far away, Matto said. This year, the program has expanded to Rutgers—Newark as well as Drew University and the University of Texas at Austin, each of which will be partnering with nearby high schools to provide their own versions of RU Ready.

These schools will convene at RU Ready’s annual Young Leaders Conference, which will be hosted virtually this year, Matto said. The conference involves exploring youth political participation, reflecting on knowledge gained from the program and offers tips to young people interested in becoming leaders in their communities, according to the website.

“It's not enough to know American history and to know democratic processes in government for self-government to work,” Matto said. “Everyone needs to be able to participate in it and to know how to participate in it. So, our aim is to really provide high school students the ability ...  to be engaged in their community.”

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