What if you had the chance to join an elite group of students in your major from across the country for two days of thought-provoking conversation?

Rhiannon Bell, ’15, and Franny Edmundson, ’15, both politics, philosophy, economics and law (PPEL) majors, had that chance when they were selected to attend the PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) Colloquium this spring.

Sponsored by Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, the colloquium brings together two students each from 10 universities that have strong PPE programs. The group gathered in Chapel Hill, N.C. for lively discussion around the topic of criminal justice. “The discussions involved many issues relating to criminal justice from economic and philosophical perspectives, such as the morality of the death penalty,” said Bell.

The event is different from a conference; rather than listening to experts lecture on a particular topic, participants are expected to engage in discussion around materials they prepared in advance. “We were given articles to read ahead of time,” said Edmundson, “and the sessions were dedicated to one or two of the assigned articles. The faculty acted as discussion facilitators rather than leaders; student participation made up the majority of the conversation.”

For Bell, the most interesting discussion revolved around alternative methods of punishment, such as education and rehabilitation, that were proposed in an article by Geoff Sayre-McCord, the director of the UNC PPE program. “We discussed philosophical reasoning for punishment, such as desert, restitution, and deterrence, and then used these to discuss whether our current system of punishment was effective,” she said.

Beyond the academic conversations, the colloquium allowed Bell and Edmundson to spend time networking and socializing with their peers. “What I enjoyed most was having intellectually stimulating conversations at every meal, “ Edmundson said.  “Everyone at this conference was exceptionally bright and had many interests outside of the social.”

Both Bell and Edmundson agree that they learned a lot at the colloquium.  “I gained a greater knowledge of the possibilities that the PPEL program can bring to discussions of good policy-making,” Bell said.

Edmundson said that while she learned a lot about criminal punishment and moral theories, the colloquium was also a chance to think about her interests and career goals. “Debating such a big and important topic with intelligent people furthered my desire to have a job that makes, or at least tries to make, a difference in bettering peoples’ lives.”