This summer and fall CVP is writing profiles of colleges and universities and their efforts to educate students about voter registration, casting a ballot and developing democratic engagement. These campuses are a part of the Voter Friendly Campus designation project offered by CVP and NASPA.
Recently, I interviewed two representatives from Chatham University in Pennsylvania to discuss their preparations for the general election less than four months away. I could feel their excitement for the upcoming academic year immediately, and after talking to them it became clear why. Like many universities, Chatham faculty and staff are constantly working to make sure students turn out in large numbers at the polls. What struck me most about Chatham was the level of involvement of their students, who volunteered hours of their time each week toward promoting civic and democratic engagement.
Chatham has an Office of Student Affairs and a chapter of Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP) that are staffed with full-time employees who work year-round planning and implementing activities to get students involved. There’s also a lot that will be going on Chatham’s campus leading up the election and on the day of the election itself. They’re planning to have watch parties for everything from the debates to the State of the Union. The PCWP hosted its first round-table discussion on the topic of the Family Medical Leave Act in the spring. In the past academic year, there were several panels featuring political professors, scholars, and activists focused on increasing political participation among women and people of color. Panel speakers discussed how they translated their community engagement efforts into a political campaign, and how attendees could too. Still, their efforts would be in vain without the support and commitment of students who have risen to the occasion to help out.
It’s student volunteers who set up tables several times throughout the year outside the main dining hall to register students. The PCWP trains students to conduct peer-to-peer asks for registration. These volunteers traveled to residence halls to reach students where they live and register them there. They visited these same residence halls and went door-to-door to encourage students to attend debate watch parties hosted by the Office of Student Affairs and the PCWP, distributing printed door hangers.
At Chatham, students are the best messengers and promoters for events happening on campus. Students are more likely to attend events where they know many of their peers will be. They’re also much more receptive to messages delivered by fellow students. Chatham’s administration provides a strong foundation toward making sure its student body is civically engaged. Following its lead, students took it upon themselves to register and educate their cohorts. With these two units working together, the possibilities for the Chatham network to improve the community around them are endless.