Honoring civility and democracy

Civility is central to democracy — and it has faced a rapid decline in the public sphere within the last few years as those on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum have resorted to anger and contempt rather than open public discourse.
In response, Allegheny College created the Dr. James H. Mullen, Jr. Prize for Civility in Public Life.
“Allegheny College is one of the nation’s oldest liberal-arts colleges, with a long tradition of passionate but civil intellectual debate,” the college’s website states. “Deeply troubled by the rise of incivility in U.S. politics, and its negative impacts on political participation, particularly among young people, the College created the Civility Prize in 2011 to highlight and reinforce the unheralded public figures who advance civility.”
The award is named after former college president James Mullen. He first established the national Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life in 2011 to annually recognize two public figures from opposite ends of the political spectrum who argue “passionately but with civility for their beliefs.”
Five years later, in 2017, Mullen established both a Pennsylvania version and a student version — the Student Prize for Civility in Public Life that is to be “awarded annually to exemplary student leaders who have demonstrated a strong passion for, and deep understanding of, civility on the Allegheny College campus and in community work,” according to the award’s website. When Mullen retired in 2019, the student version of the award was named after him.
“I know when Dr. Mullen was here — (he was) really very passionate about civility,” said Associate Dean of Students for Wellness Education Gretchen Beck. “And recognizing students and helping folks understand the importance of civility in everywhere from the classroom to our everyday conversations and really taking the time to learn about each other and respect each other and have just a common respect for folks.”
Each year, two seniors receive the award. Allegheny students, staff, faculty and administrators can nominate any senior they think is deserving of the recognition.
“Most of them really have, first of all, a heart for community, and for friends, and for Allegheny and kind of making a difference,” Beck said. “It just seems to be a general undertone of their — just who they are as individuals. Wanting to make a difference in their community and wanting to help people.”
Shula Bronner, ’22, and Dakchyata Thapa, ’22, received the award in 2022.
As a student, Bronner was involved with numerous clubs and organizations on campus, including College Democrats, Grounds for Change and Orchesis Dance Company. She held leadership positions in Hillel, the Curriculum Committee and Coalition for Labor, a group dedicated to supporting campus employees. She was also a member of Pi Sigma Alpha and Psi Chi, honor societies for political science and psychology, respectively.
Bronner’s love for community motivated her to be a part of all these organizations.
“I chose Allegheny because of the small campus community experience over a big university,” Bronner said. “That’s what I wanted, so that’s what I made sure to get out of it.”
Bronner participated in such a wide variety of activities because they all added something unique to her college experience. During her work, Bronner formed strong connections with the myriad other students who were heavily involved in extracurriculars and who she said also did notable work for the campus community.
“I was really, really honored to get it (the award), but it’s also not — there’s so many people who were also involved in a billion things in my year that weren’t recognized,” Bronner said. “Yeah, I’m honored, but it doesn’t capture all of the amazing work that so many other people I graduated with did as well.”
After graduating, Bronner continued her commitment to community engagement by serving for Avodah Jewish Service Corps and working for a non-profit to help undocumented citizens renew their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applications.
Bronner hopes current students will take advantage of the variety of opportunities available to them and become part of the ones that call to them.
“These (extracurriculars) aren’t resume-builders,” Bronner said. “They really should be fun for you and things that you enjoy. So I would really say to prioritize that. And also not feel any shame if you’re not able to be in five clubs because being a college student is hard and takes a lot of your time even if you’re not working on top of that.”
Aaliyah Coleman, ’21, won the award in 2021. They are currently working as the student engagement coordinator of diversity and inclusion specialist at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. When they graduated from Allegheny, they were on a pre-med track and envisioned themself going directly into medicine.
“(I) was literally taking a practice exam when one of my mentors reached out to me and was like, ‘Hey, there’s this position open at this community college. You could probably do it with your eyes closed because you’ve been doing it at Allegheny for the past three years,’” Coleman said. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, sure, let’s try it. When the universe calls things, just go for it.’”
During their first and second years at the college, Coleman was a student athlete. A significant injury caused them to take a break from athletics at the end of their sophomore year. In their newfound free time, Coleman attended an Association of Black Collegians meeting and was inspired by what they saw.
“It really took me back at first because I wasn’t used to being able to express my anger and my frustration with administration, let alone an adviser being in the room,” Coleman said. “I was like, ‘Are they going to tell on us?’ It was a really weird thing for me. But when I saw the way that they advocated and the action then they put behind that — I went to one of my first protests by being a part of ABC.”
Soon after, Coleman found themself involved in a wide variety of groups on campus, including A Ladies Place, Zeta Phi Beta and the IDEAS Center as an intercultural advocate. Coleman spent much of their time on campus working to highlight the experiences and perspectives of students of color. They worked closely with college administration to figure how to best support students of color on campus — especially after former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in 2021 of murdering George Floyd, a Black man.
Becoming involved with diversity, equity and inclusion work for the college helped Coleman find their voice in a way they had not been able to before.
“I didn’t feel confident or safe for myself and it wasn’t until I started becoming a part of these clubs and organizations at Allegheny to where I was okay talking about my sexuality,” Coleman said. “I was okay talking about my Blackness. I didn’t feel fear or like I was going to be attacked later that day for speaking up against the things I found to be — pardon my language — were straight up bulls—. And I didn’t like it. So being able to speak up and kind of just talk about it, my self-confidence just kind of soared through the work.”
When they found out they had been awarded the Dr. James H Mullen Jr. Allegheny College Student Prize for Civility in Public Life, Coleman was taken aback. They describe the work they did on campus as just part of “human nature,” saying they simply felt a “responsibility” to contribute positively to their community.
Coleman plans to use the $500 award to pay for school supplies at Drexel University’s Master of Science in Biomedical Studies program next fall.
Coleman hopes current students take advantage of their college experience to learn about people and ideas that they have no former knowledge of by attending the meetings and events of the wide variety of student organizations.
“Show up. Be yourself. Be kind. Allow yourself to be educated. Be wrong — that’s the only way you can grow. And have fun, enjoy yourself. You’re in college. If I could go back, I promise you I would,” Coleman said.
Beck looks forward to the continuation of the prize as a hallmark of the college.
“I think it’s unique to Allegheny,” Beck said. “And it just says a lot about who we are and what we value as a community.”