College students, you are in the best possible place to witness the upcoming presidential election. If the Obama-Romney race was an actual athletic event, you’d be in the front row. Big metropolitan cities, small suburbs and rural areas have nothing on the typical college campus during election season. Why, you ask?
I’m going to rewind to 2008. In the spring, I was finishing my sophomore year at Penn State, working on my degree in journalism. It was a typical spring semester, except all of my journalism classes couldn’t avoid this one ever-present topic: the upcoming election. Even beyond the classroom, politics consumed a crowd that, just months before, I thought seemed passive and indifferent to the topic. Boy, was I wrong.
Not too many of us grew up as a politically savvy child or teen, unbiased from our parents’ point-of-view. College is the first point in your life where you can independently gauge how you feel about a range of political arguments, and there’s no better place to explore your stance. A variety of political student organizations exist, and whether you want to learn more about a relevant standpoint or further support a cause you believe in, there is no better place to discover a group of people that share your perspective. My Massachusetts roots put me on liberal autopilot, but nonetheless, I wanted to gain the ability to say why I chose this point of view. A political stance is nothing without solid argument — something I lacked.
A crowd estimated at 22,000 listens to then-presidential-hopeful Sen. Barack Obama speak at a rally at Penn State University March 30, 2008.
Enter Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Both were visiting Penn State in the same week — a deliciously captivating political combination for the school’s many Democratic students. Furthermore, Republican Ron Paul came to do some campaigning, transforming our little Happy Valley into a temporary political Mecca. Not only did students have a front-row seat to the election “games,” but we were at the 50-yard line with our faces painted.
Candidates can’t make it to every university, but there’s still an abundance of resources in which you can submerge yourself. Here are a few ways to get — and stay — engaged.
Political student organizations
There are likely some Democratic and Republican organizations on campus, and they’ll be chock full of meetings prior to the elections. Not only will the clubs help promote candidates, but they’ll likely host some political debates on the major topics being discussed during the campaign. Step out of your comfort zone and explore some of the minor political parties, too, and make yourself as politically well-rounded as possible. (Fact: A U.S. Marijuana Party exists. I don’t condone illegal drug use, but if that doesn’t lure you in to explore different viewpoints, I don’t know what will.)
If candidates, members of government or just political supporters are scheduled to speak on campus, go. I don’t care if they have an insanely radical or bizarre point of view with which you strongly disagree — just go. You’ll learn something new about these opposing ideas, and/or you’ll be able to solidify your reasoning for supporting the opposing perspective. Attending a speaking engagement of someone you already support can certainly be an eye-opening opportunity, but it’s safe. Take risks.
Pay attention in class
That thermodynamics lecture in your engineering class most likely will not broach the subject of politics. Nonetheless, you can strengthen your interest in politics and prepare for the election in advance by signing up for core courses that may enable you to become more of a pundit — media studies, U.S. history, political science and so on. Not only will this open the door to political discussions, but your professors will have a wealth of knowledge on the candidates and their campaigning themes.
So can I engage in — and win — a debate with a political science professional? Absolutely not. And if you’re anything like me, you might not, either. But do your judgment and knowledge a favor: Use every possible opportunity to plant yourself into the front row of the presidential election and surrounding politics. I didn’t transform myself into the next government employee or political activist, but I walked out of the election season with far more facts to back my stance, and my eyes were opened even wider to the world and opinions around me.
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