Politically Engaged Millennials? Not an Oxymoron

Initiative led by Dominican University of California brings students from scores of campuses together to craft questions for the presidential debates. Now they're focused on encouraging their peers to vote.

September 13, 2016
Dominican University
Students gather at Dominican University of California to draft debate questions.

Later this month, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet onstage at Hofstra University for the first presidential debate of 2016, they may have to answer to college students.

That’s 117 college students from 87 schools across the United States, to be exact, who gathered in California last week to devise questions they hope the debate moderators will ask.

This initiative, called College Debate 2016, is the fruit of a partnership between the Commission on Presidential Debates and Dominican University of California to encourage civic engagement among college students. Over two days on the Dominican campus, student delegates, who had been charged with getting input from their peers in the preceding weeks, discussed and debated which issues and questions to send to the moderators. The program culminated Sept. 7, when they gathered onstage to vote with paddles for the five final questions in a live-streamed caucus-style town hall.

The final questions drafted by the delegates were:

On education: How will you ensure quality education to socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, both in terms of K-12 and access to higher education?

On social justice and civil rights: What will you do to reduce the recidivism and mass incarceration rates in communities where poverty and violence are prevalent?

On immigration: What is your plan for aiding the employment of skilled refugees and immigrants in their respective fields?

On the economy: How would you restructure government assistance programs for the unemployed or impoverished to obtain self-sufficiency?

On foreign policy, a tie: (1) What specific circumstances would prompt the United States to use military resources in a foreign country? How would you utilize the nation’s military resources? And (2) How do you plan on supporting Syrian civilians without creating further conflict with other political actors?

Dominican is a "voter education partner" of the Commission on Presidential Debates, one of dozens of such partnerships, including with other universities and educational nonprofits, designed to help inform the public about the election and debates. But there’s no guarantee that the moderators will use the submitted questions in the debates, said Mike McCurry, co-chair for the commission.

But providing moderators with questions isn’t the only purpose of College Debate initiative. The other goal is to encourage student involvement in political dialogue -- and to encourage voting. “We are creating a different kind of network of college students; this is not a one-issue cohort of students,” Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, senior adviser for strategy and planning at Dominican, said. “This is a different way of organizing youth, a way to get them talking to each other to potentially move a conversation forward.”

That’s no easy task.

Historically, people aged 18 to 24 have had low voter turnout in presidential elections. In 2012, 41.2 percent of people in this age group voted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That dropped by seven percentage points from 2008. And it’s an even greater contrast to the overall population -- in 2012, the voter turnout rate for all adults was 20 percentage points higher than it was for millennials.

One possible explanation for the low numbers: when young people feel like their voices are being ignored by government officials, they lose faith in the democratic system, says James Durant, a junior studying criminal justice at the Citadel and a College Debate delegate.

When it comes to College Debate delegates, “We are representing those who feel misrepresented to begin with,” Durant said. “We want to get those issues out for candidates to hear.”

Community engagement is a priority at Dominican, President Mary Marcy says; the university has made it one of the four central themes of its new curricular approach. That's what prompted the university to enter the partnership with the debate commission.

Student delegates come from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and there’s no one political affiliation or issue that unites the group. Dominican teamed with 11 organizations, including the American Democracy Project and the Institute for Higher Education and Democracy at Tufts University, that nominated the students. The students then had to apply to the College Debate program.

Unsurprisingly, the students who applied to be delegates have one thing in common: they share a faith in community engagement and the democratic system that some of their peers are losing.

“We wanted to come up with a new way to engage people using social media,” Rodriguez-Farrar said. “We want to use the tools that [college students] use to communicate. I think we have, reaching over a million users over the summer when students are not in school.”

But that number is an estimate, said Nathan Carpenter, assistant director for convergent media at Illinois State University's School of Communication. The million-user figure measures reach, not engagement -- in other words, it considers people who may have just seen the hashtag instead of commenting, liking, retweeting or sharing. The number of users who have directly engaged with the hashtag is closer to 100,000.

The hashtag struck up the most engagement when student delegates were sharing “excited posts” about the original College Debate delegate meeting in June, Carpenter said.

“In some ways that becomes problematic,” Carpenter said, because those posts focused on the event and were not a discussion of the issues themselves. “But it also increases visibility.”

According to the delegates, that’s not a bad thing.

“When I started using the hashtag, my friends started asking me, ‘What’s college debate?’” said Hallie Balch, a junior at Dominican studying political science and communication.

Whenever the question arose, Balch took the opportunity to discuss College Debate and the election. In June, she and other student delegates convened at Dominican to learn how to have political conversations in respectful and substantive ways. This training helped her participate in discussions throughout the summer, both online and in person.

“I had a long debate with my parents over immigration policy,” said Balch, who says her views diverge from her parents' more conservative outlook. “In the past, it was a grudge match where we were yelling. Now it was much more civil, so we were able to put our opinions on the table without insulting anyone.”

The June training session also encouraged students to reach out to citizens for whom voting might seem inaccessible.

Sarah Funes, a senior studying political science at the University of California, Berkeley, has a vested interest in removing barriers to voting. A Latina, she works to make civic engagement more understandable by facilitating discussions on social media, reaching out to peers on campus and speaking in Spanish.

Funes is also devoted to creating greater accessibility for disabled voters and advocating for more dialogue about disability issues in political discourse. She is paralyzed on one side, the outcome of several surgeries after she was diagnosed with cancer at 10.

“I’m the only disabled person in the room [at College Debate], and I’m glad to be here,” she said. “But if this were to happen again, this is something that needs to be addressed. Nobody in the mainstream is reaching out to us.”

But over all, Funes is optimistic.

“There’s a lot of pessimism and anger and frustration, but I think College Debate will have a big impact, especially if the debate moderators will decide to use our questions,” Funes said. “If they ask one question that we provide, that would give students and young people across the country our own moment.”


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