Creating a Democratically Engaged Campus
Their missions have made them a perfect match: Brockport’s Office of Community Development focuses on democratic engagement as one of its pillars, preparing students to be civic-minded leaders. The American Democracy Project (ADP), with an active chapter at the College that is part of a nationwide initiative, aims to foster informed, engaged citizens.
Together, the two are making dramatic gains in student involvement this election season through their Brock the Vote campaign, working to spur awareness and active participation from a young age.
This early engagement is key, explains Susan Orr, PhD, ADP project chair and an associate professor of political science. "We know from research that voting is habitual — once you have voted, you are likely to vote again," she said. "If we encourage students to vote as soon as they are able, we help them overcome anxieties about voting and build their confidence in their ability to meaningfully participate."
Recognizing the importance of open dialogue on what can be hot-button topics, the groups planned events dedicated to letting students and the greater College community make their voices heard and get answers to their questions.
They held six Elect to Lunch events throughout the fall semester, providing open, informal discussions about the election and politics at large. They ensured students had access to the televised debates, hosting watch parties and Twitter discussions.
In addition, they hosted a variety of talks on citizenship, the media’s role in our political perceptions, and more. In one interactive event, attendees played the game The Fiscal Ship to examine the ways in which the federal budget affects their day-to-day lives.
One of the final events, Our Community, Our Voice, featured a poster session on issues such as immigration, taxes, foreign affairs, and more, expressing the views of each of the presidential candidates. This opened up a natural conversation about the attendees’ own views and values and how they compare to those of the candidates, without bias or distraction.
Having ensured ample opportunities for students to be prepared to make educated choices, the push was on for them to take the next step and become registered voters.
From September to October, staff and student volunteers spent 100 hours in the Seymour College Union, Tuttle South, and residence halls encouraging students to register to vote, including a voter registration party on September 27, National Voter Registration Day. They set a goal to obtain 750 registrations. In total, 949 students registered or requested absentee ballots. In addition, 95 students utilized the College’s partnership with TurboVote, an online tool that provides voter registration and absentee ballot options as well as election reminders and information to help students vote with confidence.
“I am really excited about the amount of students that are getting themselves democratically engaged,” said Tiye Davis, graduate assistant for the Office of Community Development. “It goes back to our mission of building community one citizen at a time.”
Orr shares in this excitement, underscoring the far-reaching implications of these efforts. "Programs aimed at fostering civic engagement send a message to everyone in the community that we as a College think that a liberal arts education entails building skills, ideas, and attitudes that help young people become good citizens and community leaders as well as successful professionals," she said.
Building off of this momentum, Assistant Director of Community Development Kim Piatt is leading an effort to get the College recognized as a Voter-Friendly Campus, a designation by the nationwide Campus Vote Project for schools that work to engage their students and their greater campus communities in the democratic process.
When Piatt began the extensive application process in spring 2016, the College’s level of student democratic engagement was reported at less than 20 percent. Her goal is to increase that number to 50 percent engagement by 2018.