Students Leading Students

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

presidential election debate 2012

It's been a busy semester for the College Republicans, led by David Milstein '13; Students for Mitt Romney, led by Isaac Copeland '13; the College Democrats, led by Matthew Hillsberg '13, and Students for Barack Obama, led by Will Nelligan '14. There have been rallies, meetings and guest-speaker appearances; neighborhoods to canvas and students to register; candidates to stump; ideologies to promote; a new onslaught of news and analysis to devour each day; and special events, such as a mock debate, moderated by President William G. Durden '71, pitting Milstein (as Romney) against Hillsberg (as Obama).

Add to this the usual flurry of homework assignments, papers, exams, extracurricular outings and obligations and you begin to wonder just how the students who power the campus' four main political groups found the time to register an impressive 600 new voters on campus this fall.

"We've been working hard all semester to get out the vote and make sure students are informed," says the College Republicans' Hannah Shaffer '13. "It's an important cause."

Students backing Romney and Ryan hit a high note in September with a media-savvy voter-registration rally and voter-education event that featured a buzz-worthy visual aid: the official Romney campaign bus.

Emblazoned with the slogan “Romney: Believe in America,” the bus served as a splashy backdrop for the students' voter-registration rally on Britton Plaza, generating local-news coverage and much on-campus interest. The result was an ideal peer-to-peer teaching opportunity for students in the Romney camp.

Those backing the Democratic ticket also raised their on-campus profiles in the months, weeks and days leading up to the election. According to Hillsberg, the College Democrats and Students for Barack Obama brought in high-profile guest-lecturers, including John Hanger, former Pennsylvania secretary for the Environmental Protection Agency; congressional candidate Gene Stilp; and Sen. Bob Casey.

"Students need to be educated about the issues that mean the most to them, and I am confident we've been keeping them informed," Hillsberg said.

All of these efforts paid off on the night of the first presidential debate, when the student groups joined forces with the political-science department to present a debate-watch party in The Depot that attracted 200-250 students; subsequent parties also drew large crowds. "After that, students were energized. It really was an incredible statement about how invested this campus is in the election," Nelligan said.

From passion to action

While election-day turnout has yet to be seen, the outlook on campus appears bright. Shuttles will be on hand to take students to polling places on election day, and many voters, such as Mary-Elizabeth Baskett '15 of Florida and Leah Silver '13 of North Carolina, have already cast their ballots. Some non-Pennsylvania residents in the student body are choosing to vote in Pennsylvania, a swing state, rather than at home, because they feel that their votes can make a greater difference here.

That spirit of ingenuity is good news to Copeland and Hillsberg, who both assert that, partisanship aside, personal investment is the name of the game.

"Every single policy will affect our generation for years to come; young people have an incredible stake in the future. They have to become informed and they have to act," he says. "Of course, as president of the College Democrats, I would like a straight-ticket win, but as a student leader and a Dickinsonian, I just want every student to exercise their right to vote."

So far, so good, Copeland reports.

"Just today, I was waiting for my lunch at the Quarry and I couldn't help but overhear two separate conversations about the two presidential candidates," Copeland says. "That may not sound like much, but for me, it is exciting."

Published November 5, 2012