WASHINGTON – Students are acting locally — even if they aren’t thinking globally.
College students are becoming more involved with local political activism even though they remain largely ambivalent about formal politics, a study released Wednesday said.
Today’s college students are more engaged than their Generation X counterparts of 15 years ago, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“Students are looking for ways to have an impact on the things they care about,” said Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s youth coordinator and an author of the report.
Contested elections, ideological polarization, terrorist attacks, war and the effect of the 24-hour news cycle have all changed the way college students fit into the landscape of American political life during the past 15 years, Kiesa said.
They are now “eager to get out into their communities and put their acquired talents to work,” the report said. These increases are happening across the board — lobbying local legislatures, building houses and tutoring, to name a few.
CIRCLE is based in the School of Public Policy at UMCP.
The group, led by Kiesa, conducted focus groups at a dozen colleges and universities nationwide, including UMCP. The study focused on 18- to 25-year-old students at four-year colleges.
UMCP has a particularly strong culture of political activism, Kiesa said, and it affects all students, even those who are less active.
“There’s a really strong notion that what other students are doing helps (students) know about issues … it’s really something that has impacted students,” she said.
UMCP is doing “great” work, said Maureen Curley, director of Campus Compact, a nationwide organization promoting campus activism. “Students are actively engaged on both sides of issues.”
“Maryland is actually a very good place for activism,” said Chris Leuchten, a campus organizer with Maryland’s chapter of the Public Interest Research Group. He said that once students understand the importance of certain issues, they become involved quite easily.
The report’s conclusion “seems very consistent with what’s going on on our campus,” said Andrew Friedson, UMCP’s student body president.
The past two weeks were a good example, he said, with students rallying in Annapolis for higher education funding, and the university hosting a global warming convention that more than 6,000 students attended.
The report’s results contrast starkly with a 1991 study from the Kettering Foundation, which found that most college students then — members of Generation X — considered politics “irrelevant” to their lives.
Wednesday’s study used methodology similar to the Kettering one and it had a representative sample of students at four-year colleges.
There is a desire among those students to be involved in a “fair and open dialogue,” Curley said.
“Civic engagement in students is important,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, director of the New Voters Project at Student PIRG.
Jahagirdar attributed the rise in activism, in part, to groups that “train students to make a difference locally.”
Indeed, the report said a rise in volunteering and grassroots organization means more students are involved in political activism at the local level — even though they are generally turned off by spin and other machinations of national and formal politics.
“Students view politicians as trustees of the general population gone astray,” said Alex Orlowski, another author of the report.
Students are still more active locally, despite these attitudes, and can be more motivated because of it.
“Motivation is often a result of engagement, not the cause,” said Rick Battistoni, a professor of political science at Providence College who studies education’s role in democracy.
In general, he said, with the emphasis schools place on teaching skills and knowledge, the capability to motivate students is often overlooked, which can make for more uninterested students.
More chances to get involved would likely boost student involvement across the board, the report said, suggesting increased access to “civic and political participation” and more “opportunities and space for deliberation on public issues.”