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College students are politically active - but don't vote

Disillusioned with politics, they channel their energies into 'green' causes or work at the local soup kitchen.

By Kent Davis-PackardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2000



NEW YORK

Less than eight weeks before the US presidential election, not a single campaign flier can be found on New York University's campus.

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Instead, students are rallying against sweatshops, vowing to abolish the death penalty, and dancing to Bob Marley's once-revolutionary reggae at the student-clubs street fair.

"Students are really disillusioned with the political system we have," says history major Rebekah Wolf, as she displays a "Free Tibet" flag at her table. "It's easier to be involved in social issues because they are moral issues. Politics doesn't seem to have any sort of heart anymore."

With voter turnout rates among young people expected to hit historic lows this fall, it's easy to see why today's college students have been labeled as indifferent, apathetic - even antidemocratic.

But the students themselves say that's not the case. Rather, they're finding other outlets for political activism, most of which are outside mainstream venues. By targeting specific causes, such as the environment, or volunteering in the local soup kitchen, many feel they're having a greater impact.

"I don't think that students are apathetic," says NYU comparative media major Darcy Savit. Many young people are choosing to get involved in grass roots campaigns, she says, where "it seems like the effect is more immediate."

Indeed, 60 percent of students say they prefer community volunteerism to political engagement as a better way to solve important issues facing the country, according to a national survey of college undergraduates conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. More and more students are volunteering as tutors, staffing homeless shelters, and providing companionship for adults and children with AIDS.

This interest in social activism and volunteering gives some experts cause to be optimistic about today's youths, despite the low voter turnout.

"I think that college students and young people in general are much more politically active than we give them credit for," says CNN Headline's Michele Mitchell. "Young people feel disenfranchised from what's happening on the national scene, but they feel very involved in what's happening in their own backyards."

In some cases, this community activism can spark an interest in politics. At New York's Columbia University, students are registering to vote at the same table they are signing up with "Community Impact," a community service organization.

"People who are conscious about the community tend to be conscious of overarching political issues," says Columbia student and volunteer Miriam Sheinbein.

Still, experts continue to be concerned that college students feel disillusioned about, and disconnected from, the political system.

Less than half of people ages 18 to 22 were certain as of June that they would vote in the election this November, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Nearly three-quarters of that group say they don't know enough about the candidates to vote.

"The students tell me 'nobody here's talking to me,' " says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Young voters are interested in jobs and loans and tuition, but the candidates are talking about education reform - things that appeal more to the baby boomers and parents of kids in school rather than the college kids themselves."

Students are also turned off by personality-based and negative campaigning. Younger Americans are "more anxious to sink their teeth into policy disputes and less concerned about personality," says Daniel Shea, a political scientist at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. "They want to hammer out the ins and outs of global warming and Social Security, school vouchers, and campaign finance."

Among those students who are planning to vote, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has become a popular choice, because the difference between his party and the two major parties is clear.

"It's like two clones running for president," says Michael Crow, describing the two major-party candidates, as he yawns in a student reading room at NYU.

Still, Vice President Al Gore is expected to win much of the youth vote because he favors abortion rights, and appeals to minority students. Texas Gov. George W. Bush's conservatism, on the other hand, is popular on Southern campuses such as Georgia State, which has the largest chapter of college Republicans in the country.

Gore's eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, and Bush's nephew, George P. Bush, have been sent out as emissaries to attract young voters. And the federal government is requiring for the first time that colleges and universities distribute voter-registration forms to all enrolled students.

"There's a growing awareness that this is one group of voters that is really undecided and is out there for the taking," says Professor MacManus, "if someone can motivate them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society