College orientations get political

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

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

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

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.

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."

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

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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