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Among University students, political engagement takes different forms

November 1, 2016
Rocky yellowjacket mascot with I VOTED sticker

There appears to be one category in which University of Rochester students are merely average—that’s when it comes to their political involvement. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, eligible University students had a 42 percent voter turnout rate in the 2012 presidential elections. This compares closely with an average 47 percent turnout at private research universities across the United States for the same year.

Unsurprisingly, the 2014 midterm elections elicited far less involvement, with a 13 percent student participation rate as compared to 18 percent nationally.

“It’s important for students to be politically engaged every year, because most University of Rochester students are of an age when they have only recently become eligible to vote and are forming their political opinions,” says Glenn Cerosaletti, assistant dean of students and director of the Rochester Center for Community Leadership.  “Their active participation in the democratic process is important for setting the stage for a lifetime of civic involvement.”

Several University students have shared stories about their experiences with the political system and why they think it’s important to be politically engaged.

Alexis Wallace

Alexis Wallace ’18. (University photo / Dani Douglass)

Alexis Wallace ’18
Hometown: Fort Drum, NY
Majors: Russian and political science

Growing up, Alexis Wallace never remained in one location for very long. Both her parents are family practice physicians in the military. She was born in the state of Georgia, and has lived in Germany, Washington state, Texas, and New York. Wallace says that because she was never truly connected to one place, she was constantly exposed to different political perspectives.

Even though Wallace now serves as the president of the College Democrats, she has never stepped into a polling center.

“My parents always voted absentee because we moved around so much,” she says. “I’ve never actually seen my parents go to vote.”

Wallace works in the Rochester office of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, and is now considering registering to vote in Monroe County, as opposed to her current hometown.

“It was such a great experience to work for Congresswoman Slaughter–I wish I could cast my vote for her,” Wallace says. “But then, my vote may matter more where my parents are. It’s a very, very conservative area.”

Scott Onestak

Scott Onestak ’17. (University photo / Dani Douglass)

Scott Onestak ’17
Hometown: New Wilmington, PA
Majors: Economics and data science

Like the majority of undergraduates, Scott Onestak has never voted in a presidential election. But he has taken every opportunity to participate in the political process.

Each year at Rochester, he has diligently filled out his absentee voter ballot. This past spring, he was home during the presidential primaries and was able to place his vote at his local polling center.

Onestak is the president of the College RepublicansFor the first time in its history, the group chose not to endorse the party’s nominee, Donald Trump. Onestak says the nature of this election has brought up important conversations.

“The dichotomy is quite stark, seeing that we have the two most unliked candidates ever,” he says. “I think the interesting thing is going to be how many people don’t vote for one of the major parties.”

Onestak has been exposed to conflicting political viewpoints since he was young—his family is split along  party lines. His father is a Republican and his mother is a Democrat. But studying diverse topics and getting involved at the University has helped refine his political perspective.

“I think college makes you look more critically at issues, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to move one way or another.”

Riva Yeo ’18
Hometown: Chino Hills, CA
Majors: Economics and political science

One issue that drives Riva Yeo’s political activism is feminism.

When she began studying at the University, she got involved in College Feminists. She says it has given her an entirely different perspective on why voting is important.

“As students, we’re told ‘you need to vote because it’s your right and you need to exercise it,’ but there are so many more dimensions that come into play in politics,” Yeo says.

Feminism was important to Yeo even before beginning at the University. When Yeo’s mother was in her late 20s, she immigrated to the United States from China. She’s faced challenges as an immigrant woman, and has been working hard to establish herself ever since.

“Watching my mother has reinforced my commitment to advocating for feminist issues and for political engagement,” Yeo says.

Now, as a member of the Committee for Political Engagement, she hopes to inspire other students to get involved with political issues.

“Talking with people of different viewpoints and learning more about progressive causes like reproductive rights, economic freedoms, and the gender gap are all things that have really resonated with me,” she says. “I think that’s what has shaped and solidified my desire to become active in the political process.”

Alphonse Mugisha

Alphonse Mugisha ’17. (University photo / Dani Douglass)

Alphonse Mugisha ’17
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Major: Electrical and computer engineering

Alphonse Mugisha immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 11 years old. He was born in Burundi, a small, east African nation, but grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. After years of applying, his family was resettled in Syracuse, New York. He attended middle and high school in Syracuse, learning English along the way. Just under two years ago, he was finally able to apply for citizenship.

Even though he has not yet voted, Mugisha has been politically aware for a number of years.

“In 2008 I was in eighth grade, and I had only been in the U.S. for a year,” Mugisha says. “I just remember it was the first time a black person was running for president. When he won, it was really interesting to me that it was such a big deal.”

Now, he’s looking forward to being able to participate in the election as a voting citizen–especially in a year when the candidates represent such distinct political and personal perspectives.

“I think it’s very important to go out and vote even if it may seem that it doesn’t count,” Mugisha says. “You’re making your voice heard.”

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