Localizing College Civics: The need to engage college students in local government

by Hannah Bigbee a Generation Citizen’s Student Leadership Board member

Like many college campuses, the University of Oklahoma is seen as its own community by the students. Many students live, work, attend classes, and eat all of their meals while on campus. Because of this, the university becomes its own world. While having this community brings about many benefits for students, it may detract from their engagement within the larger community in which the university is situated, leaving them disconnected from the world outside of campus and its political happenings.

The issue isn’t that students aren’t involved. Many college students are in fact hyper-involved; some are enrolled full-time in classes, work part-time, and still find time to be involved in numerous organizations, or even student government. These activities, however, are greatly focused within the microcosm that iscampus.

College students also need a meaningful and long-term engagement with people and organizations off campus. The university I attend, the University of Oklahoma, is in my hometown. As a Norman native, I started college with a strong sense of community and was already involved in activities off campus. Right about the time I graduated from high school, I was contacted by Mary Boren, who was beginning her campaign for the state senate district 16 seat. I soon began to work on her campaign as an intern. For six months, I went door-to-door talking to voters and asked them what issues were important to them. Walking outside for hours during the height of summer took quite a bit of conviction, but Senator Boren always reminded me why the work was important. The cornerstone of her campaign was to restore trust in our elected officials. By having interns and volunteers go out and interact with the voters, and by talking to voters herself, Senator Boren gave district 16 a platform to be heard. These actions resulted in people feeling connected to local politics and I like to think that they also increased civic participation, at least for that election. Knowing that I was contributing to Oklahoma politics in a meaningful way kept me going out in the heat day after day. By the time the election rolled around, our campaign team was content in what we had achieved and had high hopes that election results would be in our favor, and they were!

Soon after Senator Boren was sworn into office, she asked if I would be interested in serving as an Intern in her office for the legislative session. Of course, I accepted immediately. Continuing the work we started on the campaign was important to me as I am always striving to serve my community in the most impactful way that my abilities allow.

As an intern, I talk to constituents, answer their questions, track bills, work on research-based projects, and observe senate sessions. In only a month working at the capitol, my entire perspective and understanding of Oklahoma’s politics has changed. Now, I see our legislators more as my neighbors rather than distant bureaucrats. This change in perspective has affected not only how I view Oklahoma’s legislature, but how I view my campus as well.

The majority of college students at OU are legal adults with the right to vote, but many do not exercise it. This is an issue because every student is affected by local politics whether they participate in them or not. College students need opportunities to have meaningful and long term involvement with government. One way that this can be done is through internships like mine. However, this would require legislators to recruit young people, and not every legislator has the same zeal for empowering young people as Generation Citizen or Senator Boren. While government internships are a great way to learn about political functions, they aren’t something that every college student can or wants to do. In addition, internships would not be able to affect the mass political and ideological change that America needs.

There needs to be a change that is more than surface deep. My ideal vision for a civically engaged campus starts with professors. I want to see professors conveying their passion through teaching. Instead of reinforcing the idea that government is overly complicated and inaccessible, I want to see professors encouraging young people to get involved and change what we don’t like. Instead of acting like the issues are out of our reach, I want to see all adults engendering a desire for participation in each new generation.

The next step in my vision is to increase awareness of what is happening on a local level. We all hear about at least some national political happenings because headlines are constantly in our face, but news on the state and local level is lacking. I have found that there often isn’t additional information on a given bill until it has passed. This is an issue because it is very hard for constituents to know which bills to support and which ones to reject. I wouldn’t expect anyone to sit down and read all of the 1,000 or more lengthy and densely written bills that are introduced each session. Because of this lack of information, many people are left uninformed about what legislation is being passed and therefore do not reach out to voice their support of or dissatisfaction with certain legislation. I want to see more than just media coverage after the fact. I want to see bill summaries in layman’s terms that the general population can understand. I want to see people of all ages engaging with their legislators. I want to see a civic passion instilled in every student through their community.

Hannah and Oklahoma State Senator Mary Boren