Student Affairs

Clemson Votes: Teaching students to engage in the democratic process



Since last year, a group of faculty, staff and students has been working to increase Clemson University students’ engagement with the nation’s democratic processes.

They want to encourage them to respond to the Census 2020 campaign, register to vote and actually turn out to vote this November.

While data show Clemson students have registered to vote and voted in recent elections at a higher rate than their peers nationally – 58.1 percent voted in 2016 compared to 50.6 percent nationally – Bridget Trogden and Kate Radford believe even more can become involved.

Trogden, associate dean for Engagement & General Education in Undergraduate Studies, and Radford, associate director for Leadership Education & Development in Student Affairs, are leading the Clemson Votes initiative to involve more students in the democratic process.

“As a land-grant institution, part of what we should be doing is getting our students to engage as citizens and become lifelong participants,” Trogden said.

“This is the right time in students’ lives to instill participation. Whatever habits you start to develop in your late teens and early 20s are habits that stay with you,” she said.

Radford adds, “I think it’s just our responsibility as an institution for our students to recognize the larger impact they have, to know what’s going on outside the college campus.”

Their goals include increasing student voter registration this year to 83 percent, up 10 percent from 2016, and have 5 percent more of registered students vote in November than four years ago.

Like everything, Clemson Votes, the group’s non-partisan effort, has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the group is making adjustments. The plans to share information at summer orientation will change to developing materials for student groups and advisers to share in the fall.

Radford said they are working on a guide about facility usage and event planning, so student groups know the rules before they bring political candidates to campus.

In the meantime, Cara Snider, assistant director for Student Leader Developmen, is leading the campaign to encourage students who live off-campus to participate in the U.S. Census.

Her group has been sending emails and using social media to help students understand the confusing Census rules, which tell students they should answer the question about where they live as though COVID-19 never happened.

Students who normally live in residence halls don’t have to worry about it; the university already counted them for the Census. Students who live off-campus do need to respond because it can have an impact on the funding of Pell grants and other state and federal programs and even where businesses locate.

Voting also has an impact on funding for programs students care about.

“If your demographic turns out – politicians appropriate money based on who comes out and votes,” Trogden said.

The team behind Clemson Votes wants to involve faculty in the effort to interest students in the democratic process, especially in STEM fields, where voter registration and turnout is lower compared to others.

Trogden, a STEM faculty member, said part of the reason there is lower engagement in the political process is because students and faculty don’t have as many conversations in the classroom about societal issues as other subjects.

Working with Walt Hunter, associate professor of world literature and associate chair of English, Trodgen hopes to bring together faculty members to talk about who has good assignments and activities about societal issues and citizenship.

Hunter said it’s important to get students to think and talk about the issues because they will be the generation leading the country in the next decade.

He said the group hopes to make it part of the core curricula rather than just an add-on discussion, something Hunter and Trogden believe some faculty members are already doing and who could share their ideas and best practices.

Trogden gave as an example a professor of environmental engineering who had students investigate government policies related to climate change or a biology teacher assigning students to find out what political candidates have to say about stem cell research.

By the fall, Trogden and Hunter look to have faculty discussion groups – maybe coffee hours on Friday mornings – to share ideas.

Trogden hopes to archive the ideas online with the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation, where there can be guides for non-partisan discussions and class assignments.

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