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Civic Engagement on Campus: How Student Leaders Overcame COVID-19

Despite the disruption of COVID-19 on their academic and personal life, college-aged voters turned out in record numbers for the 2020 election. Their commitment to getting out the vote has been called “one of the defining elements of the election.”

To analyze students’ commitment to democracy and civil exchange, BPC brought together four student leaders and an expert on campus voting for a panel on student citizenship and student engagement last September. Panelists discussed the challenges faced in promoting civic literacy and increasing voter turnout in their campus communities, and what they anticipated this academic year.

BPC caught up with these students to learn how their semester panned out, what they observed, and what’s next.

All four noted that students want more opportunities to engage with others from across the political spectrum. Some met this need through events designed to give students techniques for navigating respectful disagreement, while others focused on specific policy issues. Many events were online, but some managed to host physically-distanced, in-person events.

While the pandemic has made their mission more difficult, these student leaders have no intention of slowing down.

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On overcoming polarization…

The undergraduates devoted this year to providing peers with the chance to engage with their political opposites—opportunities that are in high demand despite a contentious political climate.

At James Madison University, senior Anna Connole was a Democracy Fellow at JMU’s Center for Civic Engagement, helping create resources and host virtual townhalls with local and national political candidates to “bring the current civic landscape directly to students.”

Connole recalls one interaction during a voter registration drive with a JMU freshman who was reluctant to share his political opinions. The student responded dismissively to her questions, saying that he doubted she really wanted to hear his thoughts. “This, unfortunately, is not an unfamiliar response,” said Connole. In call-out culture, “students can become immediately closed off because they want to avoid being lectured or guilt tripped.”

“The lesson I learn from these interactions is how much young students can assume the worst of people trying to bring up politics—and just how grateful they are to be proven wrong.”

Saint Anselm College junior Brendan Flaherty sees a similar need to bring people together and take the heat out of political discussions. “While it seems like people care less and less about the political process and treat it more as an outlet for getting angry at others,” he said, “there are real pockets of students who are willing and ready to restore faith in our systems.”

To reach those pockets, Flaherty serves as a Kevin B. Harrington Student Ambassador at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the Saint Anselm campus, which hosts events ranging from primary debates to book talks to debate watch parties.

One of those events was Finding Common Ground, a debate series in which students tackled divisive issues and offered nuanced presentations of two opposing positions and a critique of their own arguments. The inaugural debate focused on defunding the police.

On nurturing informed and active student citizens…

Emily Garcia, a junior at Arizona State University and National Director of Youth Development at BridgeUSA, noted that her organization launched a spate of virtual events to direct young voters towards information on policy issues as well as equipping them with dialogue skills.

Those events included one about how to discuss politics with relatives during the holidays, which provided students moderation and dialogue techniques, and “speed campaigning” to give students the chance to speak with campaign staff of local and national candidates.

BridgeUSA also put out a post-election video collaboration with A Starting Point called Burst Your Bubble. This virtual student forum, featuring notables like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), covered issues from school affordability to the national debt, the Electoral College, and voter registration.

The positive feedback from these events showed Garcia that students “crave areas where they can interact with differing perspectives without feeling like they could face consequences for freely expressing themselves.”

She recounted that “during our Burst Your Bubble event, I heard numerous students recall at the end of the meeting that they did not think it was possible to be able to discuss the presidential election with people of a different political affiliation. One student then said that they had wished they had access to spaces like the one we created on their respective campus.”

At American University, junior Mackenzie Meadows is chapter president of Black Girls Vote, a nonpartisan group dedicated to educating and engaging Black women in the political process.

Meadows spent much of this year collaborating with other campus and national organizations, including the NAACP, the Black Student Union, and College Democrats to keep students informed and active in issues related to COVID-19 and the 2020 protests over race.

With the College Democrats, Meadows’ group contributed to the Summer of Justice, a compilation of resources for students who want to get involved in activism that uplifts minority communities. For their contribution to the project, Black Girls Vote “focused on which voices have been historically isolated or underrepresented and how to go about presenting them to the student body; as well as how American University students can get involved,” said Meadows.

On programming during COVID-19…

Connole: “My campus has taken many different forms under COVID-19,” switching from fully in-person to fully online to hybrid within a few months. “We were able to be out on our quad a few times this past year, building up the community aspect to voting and to get registration forms in front of the students.”

Flaherty:“We were fortunate enough to be able to host outdoor events, like our presidential debate watch parties on the quad, and our voter registration drive… Reception to these events was strong, and as we put on more events like this, participation only increased.”

Garcia: In addition to hosting a plethora of online events, BridgeUSA devoted time during the pandemic to introspection: “This year was not about how many individuals attended our meetings, but about ensuring that our organization was still actively creating an environment that fostered viewpoint diversity while providing resources regarding the elections and a place to discuss next steps after the election.”

Meadows: Building on lessons learned in 2020 about how to engage students suffering from Zoom-fatigue and stressed by pandemic conditions, she and her team are planning a 2021 events calendar “to gain more student political participation.” Meadows observed, “students from all backgrounds are wanting to have discussions about the current political landscape and issues that we are facing today.”

The next generation of civic leaders...

These four student leaders show that, even amidst a global pandemic, there are undergraduates who care deeply about being engaged, informed citizens. Whether on Zoom or in-person, they strived last semester to bring the democratic process to their student peers and make their communities—on campus and beyond—better places.