Adapted from a story originally authored by
Michelle Davis in AASCU’s Spring 2016 Public Purpose magazine
Shortly before election day on the campus of the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD), hundreds of students gather for a rally to hear from inspirational speakers, interact with local artists and politicians and applaud hip-hop groups and other musicians.
Then, en masse, the group walks several blocks to a polling station, and everyone votes. Texas law allows early voters to cast their ballots at any polling place, so organizers of the “Walk 2 Vote” event capitalize on that, said senior John Locke, president of the Student Government Association.
The “Walk 2 Vote” event is just a part of the school’s nonpartisan efforts to increase political engagement, giving the UHD a 50 percent student voter rate in 2012. It’s a notable achievement on an overwhelmingly racially diverse and non-traditional student campus; 71 percent of registered students voted in that election.
In contrast, nationwide election turnout by Hispanic youth in 2012 (36.9 percent) decreased from 2008 and was significantly lower than that of White (46.1 percent) and African-American (53.7 percent) youth according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. CIRCLE also found that Latino youth are least likely to be broadly engaged and most likely to feel civically alienated, yet they are interested in having conversations about important public issues.
Hence, state colleges and universities (SCUs) with a significant number of Hispanic students are working to boost both political and civic engagement on campus. Improved voter turnout and a more civically active student body have long-term benefits, said Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, national manager for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (AASCU) American Democracy Project (ADP), which aims to prepare students to be informed, engaged citizens within their local communities.
“Creating a positive climate on campus for nonpartisan political learning and engagement, and advancing democracy are what this is really all about,” she said. “We have to be able to move the needle.”
Creating Awareness of Social Responsibility
Civic engagement plays a part in community and political involvement, with implications for student success on campus too.
Each semester, as part of a Public Sphere Pedagogy initiative at California State University (CSU) Chico, nearly 2,000 students take over local government for one day, filling the city council chamber and the city hall.
They coalesce around an issue—immigration, mental health reform—discussing in small groups, presenting research and hearing from informed community members. The day culminates with a “Great Debate,” and students are asked to write reflective papers on their experiences.
The school also hosts a “Town Hall,” which—this academic year—will be part of a required civics course. Students are asked to look deeply at a community problem then gather for an evening town hall, working in small groups with community mentors to exchange research and solutions.
Data has shown these events significantly improve student retention and academic achievement—particularly for minority and first-generation students—and the impact lasts for years, said Thia Wolf, first-year experience director at CSU Chico.
“We give students a taste of what it means to be an informed adult in a democratic society and to have discussions over issues in a civil manner,” Wolf said. CSU Chico is an ADP participant.
Other campuses are adapting CSU Chico’s efforts. At CSU Los Angeles, students taking an introductory civics class this fall will have a similar experience as part of their coursework. The school piloted this effort during the previous academic year, said Michael Willard, faculty director of service learning in the Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good.
During the pilot, students worked toward solutions to mental wellness issues. The culmination of the exercise was a town hall in which students working on plans in small groups voted for their favorites, some of which were eventually implemented, Willard said.
Changing Student Thinking about Politics and Civic Engagement
Campuses can learn from the high-fliers, such as UHD, which—like the two CSU campuses—participates in AASCU’s ADP. UHD’s efforts to create political engagement on campus go way beyond voter registration drives and are year-round, said Windy Lawrence, founder and director of the school’s Center for Public Deliberation.
Through the center, the campus hosts two or more forums per semester that focus on controversial issues like immigration or guns on campus. Attendees break into small groups to trade views instead of listening to a few speakers. Everyone gets to express their views.
“Prior to participating, [students] think of debates as unproductive conversations between political candidates,” Lawrence said. “Afterwards, they understand that politics can be productive, and they are a critical part of that.”
The administration sets an important tone of support, she said. Past school president William Flores and his wife Noël Bezette-Flores founded an umbrella organization, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, which helps the disparate community and political engagement efforts on campus work toward a unified vision, get funding and harness their power, without replicating each other’s efforts.
These types of campus initiatives can bloom into lifelong habits of civic involvement, said Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.
“There’s evidence that the old way of expecting young people to get involved—by candidates showing up and shaking hands and saying ‘Get out the vote’—doesn’t work,” she said. “What’s grabbing students today is engaging in quality discussions around issues and being informed.”
For more information about AASCU’s ADP, visit http://aascu.org/programs/ADP/. •