Civic life should be an institutional part of student life. When students see that their voice matters, they will continue to be engaged. College years are a critical time to begin participating in civic life. This is the time granted to us to exponentially increase our knowledge on a wide range of issues and get hands on experience with how they are addressed. Students who find their voice in civic matters, participate in elections and create dialogues with peers are setting themselves up for a life engaged with the democratic process. Through Hook the Vote, Student Government is leading the effort to register 10,000 new voters during this academic year.
I believe that each student can find at least one issue in which he or she has a vested interest. We have to capitalize now on the increased attention our voices have since we are young. Most people will vote in many local and their first presidential election while in college. As a public institution of higher education, I believe UT is responsible for making this the best, most informed experience possible. Voter apathy is preventable, and I think the best antidote is seeing changes in government that occur due to personal participation.
Student Government and the Senate of College Councils are the most direct way for students to make institutional changes in their lives as students. The Civic Engagement Agencies of Student Government provide an outlook for those looking for broader and more long-term involvement. As the policy director for these agencies I help connect UT students to officials at local, state and federal levels and increase voter turnout through Hook the Vote.
We are looking for creative and engaging ways to get students into the habit of voting. Over the summer 30 resident assistants were deputized, and deputization events are held regularly. You can now register to vote via SMS and more polling stations are being set up around campus. Student Government is working on allowing UT IDs on election day. With early and absentee voting, students have ample opportunity to influence elections in Austin or in their home counties.
The City Relations Agency sends a representative to University Area Partners (UAP) meetings. Currently they are gathering student opinion on lighting in West Campus, parking meters and sound ordinances that will be reported to neighborhood boards and City Council. These are issues that students live through every day.
On the state level, the University of Texas is always under scrutiny, and has shaped many policies. People already care about the issues we want to connect them to, they just don’t always know how to voice their concerns. Campus carry is a great example of a political debate in which students are willing and excited to participate. Unfortunately that debate has gained popularity after the passage of the legislation.
Is this effort a waste of time? Should we leave civic engagement to those already well versed in politics and trust that the minority that turns out to the polls will make decisions in everyone’s best interest? If we’re happy with the current system and the results it produces, that may be a good argument. However, I believe that we shouldn’t be content and that there is always room for improvement. We live in a diverse country with so many voices that are worth hearing. Some of these people don’t see the political process as accepting or accessible. If we don’t actively seek to include as many people as possible in elections, we risk stagnation and losing the progressive spirit that will “make America great again.”
If students are introduced to civic life through issues they feel strongly about, apathy can evolve into engagement. Through direct conversation with policy makers now, students can begin to shape the political environment they live in. The dramatic and entertaining start of the 2016 election cycle alone will boost campus efforts to get students to the polls.
Parsons is a marketing and Plan II junior. She is the Student Government civic engagement director.