News | March 01, 2016


Students explore civil-rights history in America

5 - minute read

Florida Gulf Coast University is an institution that gives students opportunities to “walk the walk” in the real world — chances to learn and grow beyond what they can absorb in the classroom.

A great example of this education-without-borders way of teaching is a recent project in which communication and philosophy students and their faculty mentors explored the evolution of the civil-rights movement in America.

In this case, walking the walk were nine students and three professors in the Communication and Philosophy Undergraduate Student Scholars (CAPUSS) program. This past November, the group piled into a 15-passenger van and took a three-day trip to Atlanta to learn about civil-rights history. The students then presented their findings at a mid-February conference — quite fittingly in the heart of Black History Month — that featured keynote speaker Dionne van Reenen, teacher and researcher at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

The collaborative research trip came about when students and advisers in the Philosophy Club and Lambda Pi Eta–Sigma Iota Chapter of the National Communication Honor Society kicked around the idea of a joint project under the banner of the newly created CAPUSS program.

In Atlanta, the CAPUSS crew visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Peace Studies.
In Atlanta, the CAPUSS crew visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Peace Studies.

Communication Professor Dr. Billy Huff, who teams with two peers — Professor and Communication Program Leader Dr. Jon Braddy and Philosophy Professor Dr. Mohamad Al-Hakim — as CAPUSS mentors, said the idea for the trip came from similar excursions Huff led at the College of Southern Nevada. But he said those fun-in-the-sun road trips to Hollywood, Calif., didn’t have the academic emphasis of the CAPUSS journey.

“We chose Atlanta because of its civil-rights history, as the place where Martin Luther King Jr. worked for many years,” Huff said.

Participating philosophy students were David Piro Jr., Alexander Sell, Christopher Vilivong, Daniel Rosario and Stephen Merrick while communication students who took part were Angie McAdam, Julian Montalvo, Samuel Lemes and Mary-Cecile Gayoso.

Once the idea was hatched, Al-Hakim said they didn’t want to get the students too excited “until we knew it was going to be financially feasible.” In stepped Dr. Robert Gregerson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Biology Professor and Program Leader Dr. Billy Gunnels, whom the CAPUSS mentors credit for coming up with the resources to make the trip happen.

In Atlanta, the CAPUSS dozen visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Peace Studies and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, where, as Communication and Public-Relations Instructor Pam Nulman wrote in her own story about the trip, students could “immerse themselves in the history of a struggle that continues to shape many of our present-day attitudes and institutions.” The group also took a behind-the-scenes studio tour at the CNN Center that, as Nulman writes, “posed questions around the role of media in influencing an agenda with sweeping ramifications as to perceptions and acceptance.”

“For me, the highlight of the trip was visiting the civil-rights museum in Atlanta and experiencing all the museum had to offer,” communication student Gayoso said. “The museum had levels upon levels of social justice-oriented exhibits. One exhibit, which simulated a lunch counter sit-in, was the most impactful. Seeing Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb was also very moving.”

The students — along with their lead-by-example mentors, who also prepared their own presentations for the February conference — took what they learned and ran with it. “We asked students to take their lead from the trip, something that spoke to them, and gave them two months to come back with their findings,” Al-Hakim said.

The result was a diverse array of presentations on topics as wide-ranging as civil rights as an international issue with the Syrian refugee crisis at the forefront, to the impact of King’s actual voice itself and to the marketing exploitation of his name and image, even to the negative depiction of minorities — particularly women — in video games. You can see and hear all the presentations on YouTube at the links that accompany this story.

“I was surprised by how passionate I am about my paper topic,” Gayoso said. “Writing about the hyper-sexualization of women in video games was a challenging but rewarding experience. I really enjoyed presenting at the conference.”

The professors also noted the benefits from this inaugural project transcended the knowledge gleaned from the trip. Its success almost guarantees a similar undertaking next year, with a journey to South Africa high on the list of possibilities thanks to the relationship the CAPUSS group forged with guest speaker van Reenen. Huff also points out that it gives the students, many of whom plan to attend graduate school, real-life experience in presenting research in a conference setting. Braddy noted that many students for the first time “got to see an urban city and to see diversity up front.” For many, it was their first trip ever outside Florida.

“There were many quiet, thoughtful moments on this trip,” Gayoso said. “There was plenty to ponder. I had never experienced Atlanta before this trip, and I am so glad I was able to visit this amazing city.”

Of course, it wasn’t only the students who benefited. “I got enriched just by being with the students on the bus … talking, batting around ideas, getting to know them,” Braddy said. “We developed close academic relationships, which is very rewarding on my end.”


See the CAPUSS students and professors from FGCU make presentations on the civil-rights project along with the keynote address:

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