Community service creates vibrant life

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Illustrative image.

Melissa Michelson and Carmen Liñero-Lopez, Tribune press service

In average life there are a handful of major transitions during which an individual can reinvent themselves and their place in society. These are times that stay with us forever, like moving to a new city, starting a new job, or joining the military. Or vote for the first time.

Reams of social science have demonstrated the powerful commitment of humans to our identities. In a given situation, we ask ourselves, “What is someone like me doing?” and then decide accordingly how we act, how we dress and, increasingly, how we engage in our democracy.

That is why the long-term health of our country depends on our ability to foster democratic participation as a fundamental principle of the identity of our people. To do this, we must create successful “civic transitions” for every American. Once a person has voted for the first time, they tend to adopt an identity as a voter and then vote again in subsequent elections. Getting young people to adopt a voter identity by inviting them to participate in our democratic processes can create a life of civic engagement.

In 2020, several student-serving organizations came together to help young people integrate civic participation into their lives during a period of deep identity transition: university enrollment. Through an initiative called Ask Every Student, they set out to increase student voter registration by trying to reach every student on nearly 200 participating campuses. An open source framework has allowed leaders to integrate voter education and outreach into universal programs such as student orientations and foundational courses. The campuses included private and public institutions, community colleges, and institutions serving minorities such as historically black colleges and universities.

An in-depth study of the effectiveness of the initiative comes to a clear conclusion: a few minutes of direct interaction has the power to have a profound impact on a person’s civic identity, especially when that person is new to the world. the democratic process.

A survey of 2,267 students from 14 campuses who participated in the AES initiative (and roughly the demographics of the AES initiative as a whole) found that students who recalled hearing about an AES program on their campuses said they were 8.3% more likely to register to vote, and 5.6% more likely to vote than those who did not. Among freshmen – the group most likely to experience profound life transitions at the time – those who recalled being encouraged to vote by an AES program on their campus were 14.2% more likely to vote. register to vote.

In total, about 76.1 percent of students surveyed said they had heard of an AES program on their campus. Assuming a similar percentage is true for the nearly 3 million students enrolled in colleges who have participated in AES, we estimate that millions of students have been affected by this initiative and that tens of thousands of them registered to vote in part because of this.

Of course, registering to vote and vote are not the only acts of democratic engagement that matter. Community service, activism, dialogue beyond differences and many other facets make up the full spectrum of vibrant civic life. But by introducing students to the fundamental functions of the democratic process, we open the door for them to positively impact their communities in multiple ways.

One of the most interesting lessons from the study was the extent to which students shared with their families the information they learned from an AES program on their campus. In our conversations with students from these campuses – we held 24 focus groups across the 14 study campuses – students noted how they shared AES program information with their families, thereby disseminating the impact of the initiative. .

Most Americans will experience some sort of major life transition over the next decade. These times of transition, especially for young people, are an opportunity to better shape their civic identity, but only if we commit to reaching them where they are.

American democracy is going through its own moment of transition, challenged by growing partisan polarization, reduced trust in public institutions, and increased incidents of undemocratic attitudes and behavior. In this context, applying the lessons of Ask Every Student on a large scale will promote participation and positive identities as voters, as well as strengthen our democracy.


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