This week, Southwestern University earned the designation of a “Voter-Friendly Campus” from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA)–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and Fair Election Center’s Campus Vote Project (CVP). SU is one of 123 colleges and universities in 31 states recognized for engaging the student body and promoting voter registration and voting as part of its institutional mission. The goal of the Voter-Friendly Campus program is to bolster efforts that help students overcome barriers to participating in the political process and develop a culture of democratic engagement on campus.

Civic learning at Southwestern

“We focus on civic learning as part of community-engaged learning,” says Dr. Sarah Brackmann, senior director of integrative and community-engaged learning. “Civic learning means understanding what is going on in the community and reflecting on it. It’s not about volunteering and getting a pat on the back but moving from a member of the community to an active citizen. It’s about promoting the knowledge, desire, and capacity to contribute to the well-being of humanity.”

That commitment to civic learning is what inspired Southwestern’s Voter-Friendly Campus initiatives. SU’s award-winning action plan was originally developed in 2016 by Brackmann, whose doctoral research and published scholarship have focused on community–education partnerships and the public good of higher education; Emily Sydnor, assistant professor of political science; and Jason Chapman ’03, former assistant director of student activities and residence life. Brackmann and Chapman worked on such projects as hosting Ask Big Questions conversations and workshops, in which participants discussed how they listened to other people, for whom they felt responsible, how they engaged in productive disagreement, and whether they felt disconnected from or connected to their communities. Meanwhile, Sydnor was teaching courses on American politics but wanted to make sure her students weren’t just talking about politics but were actually engaging in the political process by attending city council meetings and working on political campaigns.

Since August 2018, Caroline Haywood ’18, coordinator of community-engaged learning, has been implementing other parts of the civic-engagement action plan. “Our goal for 2018 was to persuade 30% of Southwestern students to vote in the midterm election while promoting civil discourse across campus,” she says. “I organized the Voter-Friendly working group, and with the help of [students] Camille Martin ’19, Laura Rativa ’20, and Teresa Cropper ’20 and Dr. Sydnor, we helped get a voting booth on campus, and I worked with Williamson County to set up a polling place on campus for the first day of early voting.” Other efforts of the group, which comprises student leaders, faculty, and staff, included deputizing students to register voters outside the Commons and at various political-engagement events, creating a nonpartisan midterm elections guide to navigate voting ballots, coordinating volunteers to drive student voters to polling locations beyond campus, and hosting post-election conversations, in which faculty, students, and staff shared their thoughts on the results while learning “how to treat people like people and not political entities,” Haywood recalls. The group organized and hosted a highly successful Election Day festival with food, activities, and free “Southwestern Votes” T-shirts, which—along with other early-voting marketing—resulted in 466 people voting on campus in a single day. They also produced a get-out-the-vote video featuring SU’s beloved Captain.

Civic engagement, social responsibility, and the liberal arts

According to NASPA, motivating students to register and vote establishes civic habits that last well beyond one’s undergraduate experience. When colleges and universities incorporate democratic engagement into campus life, students can explore what their political beliefs are and decide how they would like to engage in the political process. “Institutionalizing voter engagement, registration, and turnout efforts on college campuses is no easy feat for institutions of higher learning, especially in today’s political climate wherein many communities are polarized,” comments NASPA President Kevin Kruger. “With the second iteration of the Voter-Friendly Campus program, we’ve learned that the campuses that have been most successful in fostering a campus climate inclusive of democratic participation do so by intentionally including multiple facets of the institution’s community in fostering the skills, knowledge, and dispositions supporting students’ civic agency.”

Brackmann underscores that Southwestern’s dedication to fostering civic responsibility and social justice is very much part of the liberal-arts experience more broadly and SU’s Paideia approach more specifically. For example, when students learn about the complicated issue of immigration, “it’s interdisciplinary: it’s not just sociology, Spanish, and political science but also the environmental studies, biology, and psychology perspectives,” she says. “That’s where the value of the liberal arts come in. It’s why I do what I do. The importance of higher education is not just to give you a degree and a credential. It’s about doing this wonderful work of understanding your connections with others and figuring out where those human elements of purpose and agency come in.”

Haywood agrees that civic engagement goes far beyond the political. “Especially now, it’s really easy to curate a community on your phone and not really look out into the world,” she says. Creating spaces and opportunities for students to challenge their beliefs, think critically about issues from various angles, and engage in productive discussion with those who believe differently helps “teach students to get outside of the worlds they’ve created for themselves not only in real life but online. You have to learn how to create a better world not only for yourself but for everybody else.”

The future of democratic engagement on campus

Southwestern’s Voter-Friendly Campus designation will remain in place until 2020. But the staff of the Center for Integrative Learning—in collaboration with multiple groups and offices on campus, such as Mosaic, the Department of Political Science, Greek life, and several student service organizations—intend to continue their efforts to boost voter turnout, encourage student leadership, and facilitate other forms of civic engagement on campus even beyond the next election. “In the future, we hope to continue providing easy access to polling stations, information about voting, and voter registration. … The easier it is for students to engage civically, the more likely they will continue their engagement,” says Haywood. “We will also continue promoting civil discourse. Through this, we hope that Southwestern will be a campus that is not only involved in the election but also remains civil during these partisan times.”