During chaotic election season, Union works to promote civic engagement

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Next month, Marina Angelopoulos ’21 will vote in a presidential election for the first time. She knows young people, particularly college students, can play a pivotal role in the election’s outcome.

“This election is certainly a consequential one,” said Angelopoulos. She is a double major in political science and Chinese, with a visual arts minor.

“It is extremely important that Union students are educated and feel empowered to engage in politics. I have hope that many college students will get out and vote.”

Angelopoulos is doing her part. She is among a group at Union pushing to prepare potential voters so they can participate in the Nov. 3 election.

A joint effort between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, the nonpartisan Civic Engagement Initiative is focused on voter education, voter registration and voter participation during this election season.

The 11-member committee is made up of students, faculty and staff. Co-chairs are Lauren Dougherty, director of Student Activities and Robyn Reed, head of access services and associate librarian for Schaffer Library.

A campus sign encouraging students to vote

The initiative grew out of a growing sense of a need to create more opportunities for constructive, productive student engagement around the major civic issues of the day, according to Strom Thacker, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He and Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, oversee the initiative.

“We’re excited to see this initiative emerge and gain momentum at Union,” said Thacker. “Despite the physical challenges associated with keeping our community safe during a global pandemic, we’ve seen strong student (as well as faculty and staff) interest and engagement develop around this pivotal election season.”

The initiative kicked off pre-pandemic with a discussion on the impeachment hearings against President Trump. Held in the Nott Memorial in January, it featured political science professors Zoe Oxley and Brad Hays.

Partnering with other groups on campus such as Black Student Union and Women’s U, the initiative has sponsored a presidential debate watch party and a forum featuring two former female members of Congress. There was also a voter registration awareness campaign in which students, faculty and staff completed the statement, “I Vote Because…” on lawn signs that were displayed in front of the library.

Upcoming virtual events include a vice presidential debate watch party and a discussion on police reform.

A website lists events, along with tools and resources on how to register to vote, background on the election and other information.

The Civic Engagement Initiative comes at a critical time: With more than 20 million college students in the United States, students form an important voting bloc. Yet research shows they tend to vote at lower rates than those 24 and older. During the 2016 presidential election, only 48 percent of eligible college students voted.

Union has seen a steady uptick in student voting rates in recent years, but at just over 25 percent in the 2018 mid-term elections (when turnout is typically lower), it still lags. The initiative aims to raise that number significantly.

The focus on civic engagement also comes as many believe civic and political discourse in the U.S. is broken.

“We hope to see this momentum carry forward through and beyond this election and become an even more prominent feature of a Union education,” Thacker said. “Today’s students and graduates must be able to engage the critical—and increasingly difficult—issues of our times in open, truthful, constructive and respectful dialogue and engagement.”

That is why Angelopoulos decided to get involved.

“I strongly believe that my generation is a pivotal part of the electorate and we have the power to enact real change,” she said. “Change is an abstract concept, and it is daunting to know where to start. The Civic Engagement Initiative was a concrete first step in the direction of social change, right here at the college level.”