Photo by Chris Soldt

Election 2016 may be over, but there are still plenty of reasons to talk about it, according to organizers of Boston College’s Civic Engagement Initiative (CEI) – and they want BC students to take part in the conversation.

This Monday, CEI and the Campus Activities Board will sponsor a panel discussion with Political Science faculty members Kay Schlozman, Marc Landy, and David Hopkins, who will offer their assessments on the post-election landscape. The event will take place in the Vanderslice Hall Cabaret Room at 6 p.m.

“Given how unprecedented this national election has been – in so many ways – it became evident that there really needed to be some post-Nov. 8 follow-up for students to help them process what’s gone on,” says Senior Associate Dean of Students Carole Hughes, who chairs the CEI, adding that more events are in the works for this semester. 

A program of the Student Affairs division, the CEI aims to help students think about how they can make a difference in the civic life of their communities – both political and non-political – or on a larger scale. Administrators, faculty, staff and students assist in planning and organizing CEI events and activities, often in collaboration with other University offices and departments. 

Encouraging civic engagement is a worthy and appropriate endeavor for a university dedicated to the personal as well as intellectual formation of its undergraduates, say CEI representatives, especially at a time when the college-age generation is widely perceived as detached and uninvolved. 

“Jesuit education is about discernment – discovering who you are and what you can contribute to society,” says Hughes. “So part of that discernment should be to find your place in civic life and politics. I think many of our students come here with an openness to, and even some experience in, civic engagement. We want to build on that.”

“Millennials in college are very active,” says Lily Lorbeer ’17, a political science major who is co-president of the Eagle Political Society. “We may not be attending political rallies or writing to newspapers, but through the use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and online news sources, we are actively engaged information seekers.”

This fall, the CEI organized or co-organized public viewings of the presidential and vice-presidential debates as well as panel discussions and lectures on various election-year topics. Through the initiative, BC collaborated with Turbovote to provide students with election information and materials and assist them in registering to vote. And on Election Night, the CEI held a reception in Vanderslice Hall so students could watch the results.

Hughes and other CEI members say student response has been heartening: Almost 600 turned up at the first presidential debate screening in Robsham Theater, while several hundred freshmen watched in residence hall viewings co-arranged through the Office of Residential Life’s House Call program. In September alone, almost 2,100 students registered through Turbovote.

Election-related events and activities outside of the Civic Engagement Initiative also have taken place on campus. For example, last month the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy – co-sponsored with the History and Political Science departments – held a full-day conference on Election 2016 featuring panel discussions with BC faculty members and keynotes by author and policymaker Bruce Bartlett and University of California-Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson.

But it’s the quality of the engagement, not just the quantity, which has impressed CEI representatives, especially in a highly volatile election atmosphere.

“I have seen the student body collaborating and really listening to any and all opinions,” says Lorbeer. “There is a lot of discussion and question-asking. It is a breath of fresh air from the media to see students engaging with one another, seeking different sets of opinions, and wanting to learn more.” 

Adds Hughes, “At the presidential debates, for instance, you could see students from different political viewpoints who were nonetheless respectful to each other, and having lively but civil conversations.”

But the CEI also is looking farther ahead, says Hughes, and beyond election-year drama. Spring events are likely to cover topics like the U.S. Supreme Court’s current term, or the outlook for political parties in the wake of Election 2016. 

“The election captured everyone’s attention, but we want to extend the conversation and focus on the process of governing, because that’s just as important.”

Still, CEI representatives acknowledge that challenges persist for such initiatives in convincing students that the political process is relevant to their lives.

Cecilia Milano ’18, vice-president for the Americans for Informed Democracy BC chapter, has experienced the “eye rolls and ‘not agains’” when she’s tried to talk with friends about politics, but says the attitude is understandable: Many students attend a college in a different city or state than where they are registered to vote, and are thus unlikely to take interest in local issues. Students also are apt to perceive their college’s rules and policies as more critical to their lives than state or federal laws, she says, so “changes in the college administration would therefore be more of interest than a change in their senator or representative.”

Students, most of whom pay little to no income tax, are likely to view policies on elementary or second education, health care, trade, immigration or Social Security – issues which tend to receive most media coverage – as having little impact on them, Milano adds. 

“The political process feels removed from their daily concerns,” she says, “and therefore students have little impetus to get involved.”

Lorbeer points out that many college students have yet to fully form a political philosophy or identity. “At this age, many of us grew up only listening to, and agreeing with, our parents’ political ideals. But as you spend more time at college, and you become exposed to other views and perspectives, you start to develop your own opinions. It can be difficult to balance when these ideologies begin to conflict.”

 And that, says Hughes, is where a Civic Engagement Initiative should come in. “We believe that a student’s education at BC shouldn’t take place only in a classroom. So we want to create opportunities for students to be exposed to different viewpoints, and to think how these contrast with the views they hold.” 

For more information, visit the Civic Engagement Initiative's website.

-Sean Smith | University Communications