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Allegheny College works to involve students in electoral politics

Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Linda A. Dickerson

As the gubernatorial race begins to unfold, pundits plot how to entice voters to pull the levers for their candidates. These pundits strategize about how to persuade the citizens most likely to cast their ballot for specific candidates.


Linda A. Dickerson is a principal in Dickerson & Mangus Ink., an issues consulting firm.


Instead, they should be trying to make unlikely voters vote, regardless of the candidate. Getting the vote out would effectively shift the balance of power from older citizens to younger citizens, since the young don't frequent the polls.

Allegheny College President Dr. Richard J. Cook reports that a 65-year-old today is twice as likely to vote as a 25-year-old.

This coupled with the region's aging demographic explains why young people here complain of a lack of opportunity. They have largely exempted themselves from input at the policymaking level.

With its newly formed Center for Electoral Participation, Allegheny College hopes to address this. Professor Dan Shea led the formation of the center to enhance student interest and participation in electoral politics.

The center's courses and extracurriculars are open to all students. Participating in the center's activities is only one of many ways that Allegheny College encourages good citizenship among its student body. Through its office of community service, Allegheny's 1,850 students contribute more than 30,000 hours of volunteer service to the community each year.

Students and faculty are expected to participate. While doing good for mankind is a sufficient reason to volunteer, Allegheny encourages students to get involved in the community in order to enrich their academic lives.

"Classroom learning is enhanced by experiences in the community," Cook said, adding, "The students' intellectual curiosity takes off."

He sees the college's community scholarship activities as an essential ingredient of a well-rounded education. "The pedagogical research is so clear. Engagement enhances learning."

Still, improvement in learning outcomes is not automatic, according to Cook. "There needs to be more than just plain service. At Allegheny, it involves reflection, study and learning."

Although service learning is a powerful teaching tool, it alone does not address students' continuing disenfranchisement from the electoral process. "Just volunteering ignores the fact that young people have opted out of the political process," Cook said.

"Successful democracies and strong economies depend on social capital to function." Allegheny's efforts to increase the amount of social capital flowing into this region are commendable, but, in isolation, they cannot combat the overwhelming tide against civic engagement.

The Center for Electoral Participation coupled with a strong community scholarship component certainly merits replication. Students must not only engage in their communities, they also must actively participate in shaping the policies that govern those communities.

The policies that result from elected leaders whom younger people help elect will better reflect younger needs. By flexing their potentially robust political muscle, Generation Xers can help to create the type of environment that appeals to them here. If they continue to opt out of the process, they, and the region, will get what they deserve.

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