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College orientations get political

Students arriving on campus encounter supersized efforts to encourage them to cast ballots.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2008

Voter registration: Students staffed a table at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., encouraging others to sign up to vote.

Courtesy of Michael Dwyer/Wheaton College


Welcome to college. Your first assignment: Register to vote.

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Politics is perhaps unavoidable for students arriving on campus during a major presidential race. But college administrators and student organizers are supersizing the efforts this year to encourage them to cast their ballots.

"Orientation is a huge opportunity to register new voters … [and it] sends a great message … that civic engagement matters if one of the first things [students] are asked to do is register to vote," says Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director of the New Voters Project, an initiative of Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups).

Many campuses are going beyond registration drives in an attempt to turn Election '08 into the educational opportunity of a lifetime:

•First-year students at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia visited the National Constitution Center during their summer orientation. This week, they'll talk about "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression," by Spencer Overton.

•At Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., an administrator envisions a "march of the absentee ballots," with students decked out in political regalia walking en masse to the post office to send votes back home. Also, students of different political stripes are planning events this fall to encourage political dialogue.

•During orientations at Loyola University Chicago, 70 new students signed up to be "equipment managers" at polling stations this November. They'll join several hundred upperclassmen being trained to set up and monitor voting machines.

•At Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., incoming students have read up on the "millennial generation" and politics this summer. Orientation included a lively presentation by political scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson and discussions over dinner at faculty homes.

The class of 2012 is starting college amid major buzz over the influence of the youth vote. A record 6.5 million people under age 30 cast ballots in this year's presidential primaries and caucuses. It is the first time their vote has risen in three consecutive election cycles since the voting age shifted to 18 in 1971, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Yet many of today's college students are either tuned out or are hungering for more channels for political engagement. In a report last year based on focus groups at 12 campuses, students "by and large were saying they didn't get enough opportunities to connect politics to their classes … and to talk about current issues," says CIRCLE director Peter Levine.