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Summer 2007
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CSU, Chico senior Ryan McElhinney and friends witnessed Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
CSU, Chico senior Ryan McElhinney and friends witnessed Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

The Power of Student Engagement

Student political involvement is stronger than it has been in decades

CSU, Chico senior Ryan McElhinney, a delegate to this year’s Democratic National Convention, showed up with some friends at Invesco Field in Denver eight hours before Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in late August.

McElhinney was looking for a good seat, and he got one—just 11 rows from the podium. From there, he witnessed Obama accept his party’s nomination for presidency of the United States.

“We all knew how historical it was,” says McElhinney, a journalism major and history minor from Sacramento. “We had dedicated a year of our lives to getting him to that podium, so we did not want to miss it.”

While the Obama candidacy engaged many of the nation’s young people, it is still extraordinary for a college student to be elected as a delegate to a national political convention, notes Diana Dwyre, a political science professor at CSU, Chico. Indeed, McElhinney’s accomplishment might make him the current poster boy for one of the University’s highest educational priorities: increased civic engagement of its students.

McElhinney’s political involvement is emblematic of a trend among today’s college students. Or, as he put it, “Politics is no longer not cool.”

There is evidence that political involvement by college students is stronger today than it has been since the campus turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. In January, Time magazine called 2008 “The Year of the Youth Vote,” and the story line that followed in the presidential election did nothing to undermine that declaration.

Around 23 million citizens under the age of 30 cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, 18 percent of all voters, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The youth turnout rate of 52 to 53 percent challenges that of 1992 (52 percent), the highest turnout rate since 1972, and is 4 or 5 percentage points higher than the 2004 rate. In California, more than 950,000 voters under the age of 30 voted in the Feb. 5 presidential primary, a youth turnout rate of 19 percent, up 6 percent from 2000. Youth voting has increased nationally in each of the last three election cycles—2004, 2006, and 2008—the first time that has occurred since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, reports CIRCLE.

McElhinney, who says he learned valuable organizing skills as president of the Chico State Student Democratic Club, attributes the rise in youth voting to “a war that’s killing thousands of people our age” and to a government that has “mortgaged our future with huge deficits.” Students are “just fed up with the way things are going [and] are going to provide the margin of victory this coming November,” he says.

Students who become involved with a certain issue that got them into politics often appear more likely to remain interested in politics after an election, says senior A.J. Kuck, president of Chico State Republicans.

“If students became involved in this election by personally making a connection between the election process and an issue they feel strongly about, they’ll recognize their role in the democratic process and be inspired to participate in the future,” Kuck said in the Nov. 5, 2008, issue of The Orion student newspaper.

To CSU, Chico President Paul Zingg, voting is important, but “the essence of civic engagement” is for students to be engaged in, and willing to express themselves on, the important issues of the day. For contemporary students, these engagements are expressed not in protest marches but in such activities as the sustainability movement, voter registration drives, and community service projects, including Rebuild New Orleans and Up ’Til Dawn fund-raisers, he says.

Virtual politics

Today’s crop of traditional college students, the children of Baby Boomers, are commonly called Generation Y. These youth also are referred to as the Millennials, Echo Boomers, and, jokingly, “Generation Why?” CIRCLE characterizes millennial voters as wanting politicians to be positive and to address real problems, and for all Americans to be engaged together in finding constructive solutions. Millennials are technologically savvy and more likely to get their information from clicking into the latest YouTube video or watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart than from reading a print newspaper.

However labeled or stereotyped, the current generation’s penchant for volunteerism and involvement was not channeled in political ways until the occurrence of one particularly “galvanizing” event, says Steve Brydon, who has taught communication at CSU, Chico since 1973. “I think the things that happened on Sept. 11, the subsequent events, the war in Iraq, have made youth more concerned about what’s going on,” he says.

Another reason for the rise in political involvement, as Brydon sees it, is the Millennials’ high comfort level with today’s instant communication tools—technologies that have transformed not only social interaction but also political persuasion. Brydon points, as one example, to the “Yes We Can” music video by hip-hop artist and The Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am to promote Obama that has been viewed some 10 million times on YouTube.

“So I think this surge of activism and interest is driven by events along with this mechanism that our younger population is just as comfortable with as we were with the telephone,” says Brydon.

Dwyre has a somewhat different take on contemporary students. She sees them as “virtually apathetic,” especially compared with the activists of the 1960s and 1970s, pointing to “a very subdued political reaction” to the war in Iraq. In February 2003, a couple of dozen students occupied the Free Speech Area to protest the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq, but “it wasn’t a huge mobilization of people.”

Dwyre acknowledged that political activism might be taking place on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. “What we may have done very visibly in the quad of our campuses between the ’60s and ’80s may be happening virtually, and it’s hard for me to gauge that,” she notes.

Beyond confrontation

Some people are just out of step with their times. Take, for instance, Mark Stemen (BA, History and Economics, ’91). Before Stemen became a geography and planning professor at CSU, Chico, he was a student activist at the University. And if apathy was the order of those days, Stemen didn’t get the memo.

Indeed, Stemen says that, as a student, he won the Glenn Kendall Public Service Award despite once calling Robin Wilson, then University president, “a Neanderthal” for proposing to build the parking structure that now stands at the corner of Second and Ivy streets. Among Stemen’s student accomplishments were starting the Progressive Student Union and the Environmental Affairs Council.

Stemen teaches environmental courses in sustainability and civic engagement. One class in particular, “Environmental Thought and Action,” is among the most politically visible forces on campus. Each semester, students in the class write an advisory ballot measure that seeks in some manner to promote sustainability. Students collect signatures to qualify the measure for a vote and then campaign for its passage.

All of the initiatives have passed, which has taught students the important lesson of “how to win,” says Stemen. And most of the measures have been, or are being, put into action, he notes. The most recent measure, in spring 2008, called for the retrofitting of the Bell Memorial Union to provide free filtered water to the University community. The move was aimed at reducing the use of plastic water bottles.

Today’s students are transitioning away from merely complaining about problems to trying to solve them, says Stemen, referring to that approach as “post-confrontationalism.”

“Confrontational politics is not what this generation seems to be gravitating toward,” says Stemen. “They’re engaged and they’re interested, but it’s not about ‘let’s do war with each other.’ I think they, more than anybody, are disappointed by this red-blue split.”

That students have not taken to the streets in protest of the war in Iraq does not mean they don’t care about its conduct, says Stemen. “They are not interested in protesting this war,” he says. “In some sense I think they recognize, and I hate to say it, the futility of that.”

What students from the Environmental Action Resource Center did instead of marching was to organize a display of flags in Children’s Park adjacent to campus that signified American and Iraqi deaths in the conflict. Stemen characterizes that approach as both positive and educational.

Acting locally

While Stemen’s activism was in full flower when he was a student at CSU, Chico, Ann Schwab’s political blooming came much more slowly—“if you don’t count seventh-grade treasurer,” she says.

Schwab (BA, Psychology, ’79), a program manager for Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE), recently was elected to her second term as a member of the Chico City Council. Fall 1975 was not only Schwab’s first semester as a Chico State student, it was also when students staged a sit-in at Kendall Hall in protest over campus police being able to carry guns.

While more comfortable “on the periphery” in those days, Schwab participated in that protest, out of curiosity more than anything, leaving “pretty early” after the word “arrests” was mentioned. Much later in life, she became publicly engaged in Bidwell Park issues and discovered a passion for politics.

Schwab recently had a ringside seat on political activism when some CSU, Chico students opposed a so-called disorderly events ordinance proposed by Chico police. Some opponents saw the measure as an excessive crackdown on partying, while others viewed it as a threat to free speech and assembly.

After the City Council, including Schwab, voted to approve the ordinance, students mounted a petition drive to try to put the measure before voters, but they were unable to collect the necessary number of valid signatures.

Nonetheless, the students’ distaste for the ordinance prompted a majority of council members, including Schwab, to vote to reconsider it. Ultimately, the law was revised at least partly in response to student concerns. “It wasn’t a clear success for [students],” says Schwab. “[But] to go out and tell people what you think, that was very successful. To see how the system works and that you can make an influence is really powerful.”

Talk of the town

A program that seeks to get the University community’s newest members writing and talking about public issues is called the Town Hall Meeting. The brainchild of English Associate Professor Jill Swiencicki, the Town Hall began in fall 2006 with 180 students from English 130, a required writing course most students take during their first or second semester. Within a year, the program had grown to more than 600 participants, says Thia Wolf, director of the University’s First-Year Experience Program.

“The culminating event for them was leading public discussions around issues they had researched,” says Wolf. “The students were remarkably energized by that experience. ... They came back [to their classes] feeling there was a purpose for research.”

Issues that students write and talk about vary from semester to semester; last spring’s topics were connected to the 2008 presidential election, and so all were political.

Wolf calls the Town Hall Meeting experience “transformative,” with testing showing that students who participated in the program became more academically and civically engaged than their English 130 counterparts who weren’t involved.

Deanna Berg (BA, Liberal Studies, ’95), the University’s director of civic engagement, has participated in the event and been struck by how off the mark the apathetic label is for current students.

“They care so much that they don’t want to make their vote uninformed,” says Berg. “These students hate the polarized debate; they like to learn through dialogue and with others.”

With the daunting problems that Generation Y might inherit, the practice of public discourse might come in handy.

“Given the problems that we’re facing,” says Wolf, “this has to be a very fine generation. They have a lot on their plate.”

About the author

Dave Waddell (MA, English, ’94) has taught journalism at CSU, Chico and been faculty advisor to The Orion student newspaper since 1996.


Steve Brydon (left) and Dennis Warren at an exhibition debate about lowering the national voting age to 18
Photo: Steve Brydon (left) and Dennis Warren at an exhibition debate about lowering the national voting age to 18

From (Tangential) Activist to Communications Prof

Last spring a student enrolled in Steve Brydon’s course in “Public Opinion and Propaganda” skipped class to oppose a controversial municipal ordinance at Chico City Council meetings. For Brydon, it was an acceptable absence; the student was engaged “in real public opinion and propaganda.”

Although few students realize it, Brydon, who has taught at Chico State for 35 years, played a behind-the-scenes role in a movement that resulted in the national voting age being lowered from 21 to 18—a right that today’s youngest voters have taken advantage of in record numbers in 2008.

As a 20-year-old student at the University of Pacific (UOP) in Stockton during the Vietnam War in 1968, Brydon felt disenfranchised by being too young to cast a ballot for Eugene McCarthy in that spring’s presidential primary.

“I had to watch the primaries unfold without me able to vote,” recalls Brydon. “It is very frustrating when you’re a junior in college, you’re at draft age, there’s a war raging, there’s a huge fight going on in the Democratic Party between Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey over the direction of what we do in the war … and you have to sit on the sidelines; you can’t vote.”

Brydon’s debate team partner at UOP was Dennis Warren, who in 1968 founded an organization with the acronym LUV—Let Us Vote. Warren, who today is a Sacramento-based attorney, was described in a 1969 Time magazine article as “the very antithesis of the stereotype student radical,” with short hair and conservative attire, a description that fit Brydon then, too. The UOP debate duo were “octafinalists” at the National Debate Tournament in 1968, meaning they were one of the top 16 college debate teams in the nation.

Warren quit the debate team to travel the country to advocate for lowering the voting age, appearing on national television talk shows and testifying before Congress, says Brydon. “As his former debate partner, I helped him prep that [congressional testimony],” he adds.

On Jan. 21, 1969, Warren told Congress, “We are asked to bear arms and yet we are denied the right to vote for those who determine whether there be war. We are asked to represent this Nation in all parts of the world and yet cannot explain why, in this fortress of democracy, those at a certain age cannot vote while in many other countries 18-year-olds are franchised.”

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was ratified by 39 states and signed into law by President Nixon.