Students Strategize Ways to Get Out the Youth Vote at Harvard’s Kennedy School

Elisabeth Tavarez

February 19, 2019—Active participation in the electoral process is the lifeblood of any democracy, and three Marist students recently had the chance to explore this theme in depth at Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP), part of the Kennedy School of Government.  Political science majors Julia McCarthy ’19, Pamela Armas, ’20, and Gabrielle Salko ’21 traveled to Cambridge to participate in IOP’s 2019 National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement Conference.  The students were accompanied by Melissa Gaeke, Director of Marist’s Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership, and Jessica Boscarino, Associate Professor of Political Science.  The conference took place the weekend of February 8-10 and included students, faculty, and administrators from more than 35 colleges and universities.  Its purpose was to learn about student-led civic engagement efforts on campuses across the country and to take those lessons and begin to set action plans to increase student engagement in voting initiatives and other civic activities. 

Conference attendees were treated to an impressive array of speakers, panels, and discussions.  The opening panel, “America and the World,” featured former US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and US Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), and it  was followed by the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Awards honoring Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California and the student organizers of March For Our Lives.  There was also a town hall with the IOP’s director of polling, John Della Volpe.  Other panels tackled the issues of sustaining student interest in elections, lessons learned from organizing March For Our Lives, taking on structural barriers to democracy, and getting campuses ready for the 2020 presidential election.  The program also called for students to draft plans to tackle voting barriers back on their home campuses.  Additionally, the Marist group met with Trustee James Honan ’78, a faculty member in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and with Rob Watson, a Poughkeepsie native and Director of Student Programs at IOP.

(l-r) Julia McCarthy ’19, Gabrielle Salko ’21, Pamela Armas ’20, Trustee James Honan ’78, Jessica Boscarino, Melissa Gaeke, Kelsey Donohue ’13

(l-r) Julia McCarthy ’19, Gabrielle Salko ’21, Pamela Armas ’20, Trustee James Honan ’78, Jessica Boscarino, Melissa Gaeke, Kelsey Donohue ’13

The unique opportunity to travel to Harvard came about thanks to Kelsey Donohue ’13, a Marist alumna who served as Michelle Obama’s Assistant Press Secretary, focusing on media relations and digital strategy for the First Lady’s major policy initiatives.  Donohue recently accepted a new position as the IOP’s Communications Director and was familiar with McCarthy’s honors thesis project, an absentee ballot initiative.  As part of her project, McCarthy (who minors in communication) and a team of volunteers assisted more than 500 students in requesting, completing, and returning absentee ballots from their home districts.  Thinking that the IOP conference would be a natural fit with this political engagement project, Donohue extended an invitation to McCarthy, along with Salko, Armas, Gaeke, and Boscarino.

Armas found the IOP conference to be an extremely valuable experience, giving her plenty of ideas to take back to Marist.  “It was exhilarating to meet students from all over the nation with a similar background, passion, and drive.  The work the students had accomplished at their schools and within their communities really motivated my peers and me.  The diversity of colleges and universities in attendance exposed us to a wide range of ideas about how to increase voter registration and turnout.  Students and faculty shared what worked on their campuses and more importantly what didn’t.  This, along with Julia’s senior thesis work, has given us an amazing potential action plan.”  For Armas, who also has minors in studio art and psychology, the issue of voter turnout is not merely an academic matter; it’s also personal.  As she relates it, “My family and I emigrated from Ecuador in 2002, and we live in a lower income town in which about 73 percent of the population are of Hispanic descent and about half are native-born.  Unfortunately, I have witnessed injustices and voter suppression firsthand.  For me, my community and my family are the inspiration for the change I wish to accomplish in my future career.”

Students at the Institute of Politics’ National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement Conference

Reflecting on the value of the trip for her students, Gaeke observed, “For me, what was remarkable about the conference was the sheer number of diverse voices that were included in the discussion.  I think it was invaluable for our students to hear from so many different students and to have the opportunity to talk, plan, and listen to others’ experiences of doing this kind of work.  Julia, Pamela, and Gabrielle were introduced to so many advocates and leaders who look at civic engagement through a variety of different lenses, for example, Chicago Votes, which uses the arts as an avenue for people to connect with issues that matter to them in their community.”

With voter turnout a crucial part of any successful electoral campaign, the IOP conference was a valuable opportunity for student leaders to share ideas, reflect on their past success in driving the youth vote, and strategize for an even bigger turnout in 2020.  For political science majors McCarthy, Armas, and Salko, it was an exciting opportunity to play a direct role in a very timely national conversation.

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