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College orientations get political

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

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Adam Zimmermann hopes to fill such gaps at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. He's president of the campus's Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), which has chapters at about 30 US colleges. "Civic awareness and participation … was a missing link," he says, "and we figured that this year was the year to kick off a different way at Colgate."

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SAVE was planning to staff a computer lab for all students to visit during orientation last weekend. There, they could find out about deadlines for registering locally or casting absentee ballots. If they opted to fill out forms, Colgate would pay to mail them.

The hope is to "get away from the casual table in our student union…. We're trying to get something much more systematic and … ingrained in the culture," Mr. Zimmermann says.

"A lot of campuses are trying to get 100 percent participation," says Libby May, a coordinator of the Your Vote, Your Voice project, which provides information to campuses nationwide through a website.

One hundred percent participation might be a tall order, especially among students navigating dorm life and midterms for the first time. "I'm excited about voting, but that's one of the last things on most people's minds right now," says Patrick Szawara, who's starting his first classes at Wake Forest.

Ms. Jamieson's lecture at Wake Forest "hit the nail on the head" when it comes to the millennial generation, Mr. Szawara says. In the group discussions, "we were talking about how we can't trust (a) the media, and (b) our politicians, so that's why we're always searching for more information on the Internet."

Campuses are starting to tap into students' penchant for new technology and social networking. New Voters Project volunteers will ask students to remind friends to register through a text message that links them to www.StudentVote.org.

Wheaton College has set up a one-stop website for voter education and registration. In a series of events that students will help plan over the next few months, the key is to "model a postpartisan or bipartisan conversation," says Vereene Parnell, associate dean for service, spirituality, and social responsibility. With a generation that's grown up watching a "totally partisan Washington," she says, it takes effort to "resurrect the idea that … we get smarter if we engage respectfully with the people who disagree with us."

Earlier this year, Wheaton's College Democrats and College Conservatives came together to watch Super Tuesday returns. "That was probably our riskiest enterprise to date. No blood was shed," Dean Parnell says with a laugh, "but there was a tussle over the remote."

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