Lively discussion, debate engage political science students

Professor Niel Christensen instructs his Political Science 103 class. Christensen’s energy helps keep students engaged during the three-hour night class.

By Joe Moreno | Staff Writer

Juvenile delinquents and college students are not usually mentioned in the same breath.

Professor Niel Christensen deals with both. By day he teaches social studies at a juvenile court placement facility. By night he makes political science more relatable to Citrus College students.

“It is really like two bookends,” Christensen said.

Citrus students who enroll in his Political Science 103 class can expect much more than a three-hour lecture on government. Christensen actively engages students, challenging them to participate in lectures. He turns his classroom into a forum where students can debate topics and learn from each other.

“He keeps you interactive. He’s always looking for a way to get the class involved to start some kind of a discussion or to catch the students’ attention,” said Patricia Gonzalez, a 37-year-old business administration major.

Samantha Lorey, a 20-year-old dental hygiene major, said she used to think that political science was “dumb.” After spending a few weeks in Christensen’s class, her opinion changed.

“I didn’t know anything about the government,” Lorey said. “I’ve learned a lot because of his teaching style. He’s funny and he’s not boring. I think everyone should take him as a government teacher.”

Many students describe political science as dry and monotonous. But by posing controversial questions, Christensen lures students into discussion and stimulates thinking.

Christensen’s delivery is animated and his sense of humor keeps students hanging on to every word.

Take his story about a young man whose girlfriend catches him videotaping his teenage female neighbor in her bathroom. Christensen’s class goes in to an uproar after he asks them if the young man has broken any laws.  Numerous voices can be heard at once as his class debates the young man’s constitutional rights.

“Professor: homeless, hungry, will lecture for food,” Christensen said as he joked about the situation many teachers faced during the Great Depression.

“His enthusiasm is off the charts,” said 20-year-old microbiology student Gabriel Mora.

The 52-year-old Christensen first started as a substitute teacher while he was on a break from law school. He fell in love with the classroom and has been teaching ever since.

Christensen said his philosophy developed from his experience as student and he tries to emulate styles he enjoyed while in school.

“I like the style where a teacher can ask the question and involve the group. I don’t like where a teacher drones on and almost forgets the class is out there,” Christensen said.

From PowerPoint presentations to illustrations on the board, Christensen uses a variety of visual aids to help maintain his students’ attention.

Christensen keeps students involved by using scenarios that relate to principles he is teaching. These case examples make it is easier for students to remember, Gonzalez said.

The federal government and family dinners are two subjects Christensen seamlessly meshes to help explain legislation to his class. He compares family rules made at family meetings to legislative changes made by the federal government to help the nation’s family: the United States.

Christensen said he takes experiences in his own life and uses them to teach concepts of government, by doing so he is able to capture students attention by making government relatable.

Christensen attended Mount San Antonio College and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at Cal Poly Pomona where his father served as academic vice president. Christensen later earned his master’s degree in political science from Cal State Fullerton.

Identified as dyslexic when he was 15, Christensen said he struggled academically throughout high school and early in college, not so much because of his condition, but because of lack of effort.

“I wasn’t stupid, I just wasn’t motivated,” Christensen said.

Christensen hopes students who are struggling will persevere and not let excuses get in the way of accomplishing their goals.

“If you want to make something of yourself, then make something of yourself,” Christensen said. “If you’re waiting around for someone else to make something of you, it’s not going to happen.”

In his day job, Christensen tries to help teens reform their lives through his teaching social studies at Boys Republic, a juvenile placement facility located in Chino Hills.

“Most of them are pretty decent kids. They’ve just gotten involved with the wrong group,” Christensen said.

Christensen has been teaching high school for 21 years. He said the students at Boys Republic have taught him that most human beings are fundamentally good.

“I enjoy the dynamic of Boys Republic, I miss the dynamic where you have more intellectual conversations, which is why I want to work at the community college part-time.”

Christensen said he hopes to one day teach full-time at the community college level.

“I’ve always wanted to teach at the community college level,” Christensen said. “I really enjoy the interaction and the level of the students.”

He may not be able to get students to the polls, but in his classroom there is plenty of political participation.