Across the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have reinvigorated political activism and participation.
“The Occupy Wall Street moment, which has flowered into an Occupy Together movement, has done us the favor of reclaiming public space. It has also reclaimed the political energy of this country,” wrote Pacific University professor Jules Boykoff in The Oregonian on Oct.12, 2011.
Yet in certain demographics, political activism appears apathetic. On Pacific’s Forest Grove campus it seems that students simply don’t care or that there is a lack of infrastructure and organization.
“To my knowledge, there are not active Young Republican or Young Democrat groups on campus, which there are at many other schools,” observed Stephanie Stokamer, Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, before adding, “I would be happy to speak with any students who’d like to start these clubs.”
However, the lack of political organizations appears to be more of an opportunity to encourage grassroots political participation than a hindrance. As Pacific students have jumped at the opportunity to make changes for the better.
For instance, freshman Alexander Hatch, who has had broad involvement in multiple political campaigns, has decided to take matters into his own hands. Together with sophomore Jordan Kronen, they have begun the process of creating a Democrats Club. He cites the death of political organizations as a major motivator.
“I really saw there was this need on campus to have some sort of an organization to work as a catalyst in order to propel political interest,” Hatch commented. “This is really our attempt to revive the political feeling on campus.”
But just because the club is a Democrats Club doesn’t mean it will be involved in the partisan political struggles exemplified by Capitol Hill and network television.
In fact, it seems to have taken a page from the Occupy playbook emphasizing participation rather than party politics.
“They’re welcome to join our club as long as they want to participate in the discussion. One of the many things we want to do is register people to vote, which is a non-partisan action,” Hatch explained.
According to Hatch, the club is in the process of getting approval. But once it is chartered, voter registration will become the number one priority, as the group plans on hosting voter registration events “within the next couple weeks.”
Students aren’t the only ones trying to encourage participation. The state of Oregon recently announced a statewide initiative sponsored by the office of the Oregon Secretary of State.
While being facilitated by the government, the project will actually be run by youth organizations from all across the political spectrum. The goal is to find out what really matters to the youth, while encouraging political participation among them.
Outside organizations have even been arriving on campus in an attempt to engage students.
One example of this is Ben Unger, whose campaign leader visited multiple political science classes at the university in an effort to recruit students. One professor contacted by the campaign was Jeff Seward.
“A campaign manager for a legislative candidate contacted me and said, ‘can I come into your class and try to recruit an intern?’ I said, ‘Sure ,we tend to sort of accommodate these types of requests,’” Seward recalled.
The decision to recruit at Pacific was a no-brainer for Unger’s campaign.
“I got involved in politics at a young age. I think it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’ve learned that I can make a difference and I want to share that with other people,” explained Unger’s campaign manager Louis De Sitter.
The reaction by students to campaign managers that visit classes tends to be tempered.
“There’s not usually an outpouring of enthusiasm, but I think usually somebody or another hooks up with it because political science majors are inclined that way and often this kind of working for a candidate can lead to a job offer down the road or to a more substantial internship that people want,” Seward observed.
For Unger’s campaign, though, the tactic has been rewarding and garnered a good amount of support from students.
“In a brief period of a week, we’ve got about seven people that have shown significant interest and about 20 people who have shown moderate interest of some form,” De Sitter said. “Which is good considering the size of the student population compared to a larger university.”
While campaigns often target political science majors, there are major benefits to participating for all students.
“I think it’s a good experience for students of all kinds. While it’s kind of discouraging in some ways they see a little bit of the dark underside of our political system, it also tends to energize people and they usually come to the conclusion that their candidate was a pretty good person… and get they kind of mobilized by the experience,” Seward said.
All of this is just the beginning, as there are other programs coming down the road to encourage students to participate, while helping them find opportunities as well.
According to Stokamer, the Center for Civic Engagement is working on a new initiative called “Pacific Votes,” designed to encourage political participation amongst students.
Furthermore, every election season the political science department offers a course designed to get students active and engaged, while learning the election process.
“And it’s a requirement of that course that students volunteer for somebody’s campaign and about 15 or 20 students in the fall get involved in political campaigns,” Seward said.
By and large, there are many positive trends in political participation on campus.
“Participation in the community and in politics helps every single one of us shape the kind of society we want to live in. Communities that are strong and vibrant, with healthy people, good education, growing economies and so on do not get that way by themselves. That’s what civic engagement is all about. Students get one more major perk from getting involved though; it facilitates learning. We now have a lot of research showing that students who are actively involved in their communities actually get better grades,” Stokamer said. “Plus, students can get great experience for their resumes.”