Project Pericles

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is honored to be a member of Project Pericles, a consortium of 31 colleges and universities committed to incorporating civic engagement into their core educational mission. Rensselaer students and alumni address the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. Civic engagement has been integral to Rensselaer's mission since its beginning in 1824, when Rensselaer sought to apply science to the common purposes of life. This is examplified by alumnus Washington Roebling whose design of the Brooklyn Bridge provided a direct connection between the massive population centers of Brooklyn and Manhattan changing the course of New York City forever.

Project Pericles is a not-for-profit organization that encourages and facilitates commitments by colleges and universities to include education for social responsibility and participatory citizenship as an essential part of their educational programs, in the classroom, on the campus, and in the community. This learning experience is intended to provide students with a foundation for social and civic involvement and a conviction that democratic institutions and processes offer each person the best opportunity to improve the condition of society.



Debating for Democracy

Debating for Democracy (D4D) is a distinctive campus-based program that represents the mission of Project Pericles in action. On each campus, Periclean students research, develop, and advocate their opinions and positions on current public policy issues. The goal is to inspire and encourage all D4D participants to become successful and resourceful advocates in their community. Student participants learn concrete tools for successful organizing and advocacy, identify strategies for making change, develop effective messaging, and build relationships to support and sustain their work.

Student leaders from each participating Periclean college and university compete nationally in a juried advocacy letter writing campaign in the spring each year, and students whose letters are judged to be the most effective are awarded cash prizes to advance their causes. Rensselaer students and student groups interested in participating in the national competition, must first be chosen by a panel of judges on campus to move their letter forward. Contact Cynthia Smith, Project Pericles Director at Rensselaer to indicate interest in participating in the competition.


2018 Debating for Democracy Competition Guidelines - Letters to An Elected Official

OVERVIEW: Debating for Democracy (D4D)™ inspires students to become successful advocates in their communities. To encourage engaged citizenship, Project Pericles requests original letters to elected officials from teams (two or more students) at Periclean colleges and universities. A panel of judges will select the winning teams for the 2018 D4D competition.

Five teams from five different colleges will win $500 to work on their issue.

ELIGIBILITY: A student must a) be a full-time undergraduate at a Periclean campus; b) be a first, second, or third year student as defined by their college or university during spring 2018; c) write and mail a letter to an elected official, and d) provide a project proposal. Students must be returning to campus for the 2018-19 academic year to ensure that winning teams can work on their issues.

Students will be expected to carry out significant advocacy and educational activities to advance their issue during the 2018-2019 academic year. 

SELECTION PROCESS: Students must submit their letter and project proposal to their Project Pericles Program Director, Cynthia Smith by Friday, March 9, 2018. The Program Director will review each letter and select up to four to forward to Project Pericles. The names of all of the students who worked on each letter must be sent to Project Pericles with the students who prepared each letter clearly identified. All letters should be mailed by the students to the appropriate elected official by March 16.

A committee consisting of people with significant experience in public policy will review the submitted letters and project proposals using the criteria below. Based on this review, the five winning teams will be selected. We will announce the five winning teams in April 2018.


  • January 16- February 28, 2018 — Project Pericles Program Director Cynthia Smith is available to consult with students and student groups on developing ideas into advocacy letters and proposals. Send an email to Cynthia Smith to arrange an appointment.
  • February 28, 2018 — Notice of intent to participate is due to the Program Director.
  • March 9, 2018 — All letters due to the Project Pericles Program Director.
  • March 16, 2018 by 5 PM EST — Program Directors submit via email up to four letters (in Word) to Project Pericles.  A copy of each letter must also be mailed to the appropriate U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, State Senator or State Representative.
  • April 2018 — Five winning teams announced after review by a panel of experts.   


  • Project Pericles will provide a $500 award to each of the top five teams. Each college or university is eligible to receive only one award.
  • Students can use this money to fund advocacy and educational activities including advocacy trips and workshops. Project Pericles staff will work with the winning teams to develop their advocacy and education activities. Teams that have won this award in the past have organized mobilizing campaigns on their campuses, led trainings, and offered informative events such as documentary screenings, election debates, panel discussions, etc. Teams have also traveled to Washington, D.C. or to their state capital to meet with Members of Congress or their legislators and their staffs to discuss the issues raised in their letters.

JUDGING CRITERIA: The evaluation of each submission will rest on the students’ success at conducting high quality policy analysis and research; clarity of presentation; and adherence to the rules detailed below. All submissions should include a project proposal that describes how the team would use an award to advance their issue.

Policy Analysis and Research: The most important aspect of the letter is the quality of the analysis and research (55% of the evaluation). The evaluation will rest on each team’s success at identifying a federal or state policy problem in their letter, proposing a solution to the problem they identified, and conducting and interpreting research to bolster their letter.

  • Does the letter present one public policy issue in a convincing manner?
  • Does the letter focus on a federal or state public policy issue that impacts the student and their community and explain how this issue impacts them?
  • Does the letter contain logical judgment and analysis?
  • Does the letter demonstrate the use of primary (personal experience, community experts) and secondary resources (journal articles, books) to bolster their argument?
  • Does the letter demonstrate an understanding of the historical context of the problem and solution being discussed?

Clarity of Presentation: The ability to write a clear and compelling letter will be considered. In addition to a logical argument, persuasive letters include a narrative about how the issue impacts the authors or other constituents (30% of the evaluation). 

  • Is the letter effective in communicating the significance of the problem and the solution?
  • Do the authors offer a compelling narrative? Do the authors make a compelling case as constituents? Is there a tie-in to either the authors or other constituents from the elected official’s district?
  • Are the letter and proposal clear and grammatically correct?

Quality of Related Project Proposal: The project proposal should not exceed two pages and should present the authors’ strategy to have a meaningful impact on the topic they tackle in the letter. As such, the proposal should clearly outline how students would use the $500 award to instigate positive change (15% of the evaluation).

  • Is the project proposal creative and effective in addressing the issue presented in the letter?
  • Is it feasible given time and financial constraints?

In all cases, the goal of your project should be to advance your issue. Campus events should have a tie-in to an “ask” in which you request that your fellow students or community members take an action, such as contacting their elected officials, that will advance your issue.

The award should be used for activities to move your issue forward. You are encouraged to think outside the box and come up with other ideas and suggestions. Possible uses may include, but are not limited to, advocacy and educational activities, such as advocacy trips, workshops, and other campus activities.

Typical uses of funds include, but are not limited to:

  • Travel (lodging, meals, and transportation) costs to meet with elected officials
  • Costs associated with campus or community activities that educate, inform, or raise awareness about your issue
  • Travel to another Periclean campus to educate their students about your issue
  • Printing costs associated with developing materials that educate people about your issue
  • Other (pre-approved) activities to move your issue forward
  • Awards may not be used to pay honoraria to speakers

Letter and Project Proposal Writing Guidelines:

  • The letter must be on a state or federal issue. Letters on local issues will not be eligible. The majority of local issues are also important federal and state issues.
  • The body of the letter may not exceed 1200 words (excluding footnotes and project proposal).
  • Students must identify their elected official and their address. Since the authors will be urging their elected official to support or oppose a legislative solution, they will want to select the official who will be most responsive to their letter. The website will help them identify their federal or state elected officials.
  • A copy of the letter must be mailed to each student’s elected official by March 16, 2018.
  • The letter must begin with the phrase "Dear Representative (last name)" or Dear Senator (last name)" and be addressed correctly.
  • The letter should begin with a sentence that tells the elected official exactly what the student wants them to do.
  • The letter should contain the student’s mailing address so that the elected official can confirm them as a constituent and the elected official can write back.
  • The students must sign and date their letter.
  • All primary and secondary sources used in preparing the proposal must be cited.
  • The project proposal should not exceed two pages.

Eligibility (additional guidelines):

  • Two or more students must work on the letter and project proposal.
  • Students who were finalists (meaning they received an award) in a previous year are not eligible to participate.
  • No student can co-author more than one submitted letter.


“Letters are an extremely effective way of communicating with your elected officials. Many legislators believe that a letter represents not only the position of the writer but also many other constituents who did not take the time to write.” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Many federal and state policy issues are suitable for this letter. Possible issues include:
Campaign Finance* Climate Change * Federal Budget Deficit * Funding for Higher Education (Grants and Loans) * Gun Control * Immigration * K-12 Education * Pension Reform *U.S. Involvement in the Middle East

In the letter, students must identify one national or state public policy issue to be addressed and analyze how this problem impacts them personally, people in their community, people in their state, and, if a federal issue, people across the United States. In the letter, students must recommend at least one legislative solution. The students may recommend an original legislative solution (fund a NASA mission to Jupiter) or they can support or oppose a portion of a bill that is currently pending before Congress or their state legislature. In both cases, the students must support their solution with data and examples from at least two outside sources (books, journals, reliable internet sources) and discuss why their solution is better than other options. All outside research must be properly cited.

Please keep in mind that legislative staff members are reviewing hundreds of pieces of mail each day. Explaining the personal significance of an issue for the authors or other constituents and making an emotional or values based appeal can be part of writing a persuasive letter.


The following resources will assist the student in writing their letter:

  • A letter written by students at Pace University that was selected as a winner in 2017. This letter is an excellent model.  The five letters that were finalists in 2017 are noted here as examples.
  • THOMAS was launched in January of 1995, at the inception of the 104th Congress. The website provides detailed federal legislative information to the public.
  • C-SPAN is a private, non-profit company, created in 1979 by the cable television industry as a public service. Its mission is to provide public access to the political process. The C-SPAN website contains a wealth of information including video of Congressional hearings related to a number of federal policy issues. 
  • National Journal Group is the leading source of nonpartisan reporting on the current political environment and emerging policy trends.
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation's 50 states, its commonwealths, and territories.  The NCSL website provides research and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.