As I read Stephanie Dray’s article Election Time: How to Pick a Candidate to Volunteer For, I felt compelled to write a more thorough description of the factors that go into deciding how to get involved in politics. While Stephanie does a fine job describing generally how people can get involved in politics and their community, I feel it is more instructive to give examples from my brief life in politics to help out those looking for a good road map to involvement. My article focuses more on college experiences but many of the same principles can be applied to those who want to get involved in community groups, who are often tied to national and state groups with university chapters.
As a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay during the now infamous presidential election of 2000, I made my first step toward getting involved in politics. At the beginning of Fall 2000, I was a political blank slate and was looking to get involved in the election in some way. However, the little political experience I had prior to that was for nonpartisan local elections. I went from searching the political landscape at my college to joining the university chapter of the College Democrats and becoming their president through the 2002 midterm elections. Since then, I have worked for Democratic, independent, Green, and Libertarian campaigns in various capacities and I can thank my collegiate political experience for my passion for politics. However, many college students are often left asking themselves how they can get involved in an issue, candidate, or party they believe in. From my experience, there are a few tips that should help anyone clear their head of the rhetoric and find their political calling.
Do Your Research
Many college students feel compelled to join or tacitly sign up with a political group on campus for a variety of reasons. Often, whomever holds the best social event with the best freebies and food can draw in the most college students. As well, many college students are apolitical and use their parents’ political beliefs as a default setting. However, college is a time to expand horizons and think about the future. Political beliefs, like anything else, take time to cultivate and college is an impressionable time for such beliefs. Students interested in getting involved during a local, state, or national election should look at the website of the particular party they are interested in and look at their statement of principles (often called a platform). Going right to the source and finding unbiased information about an organization’s beliefs can help a student find their way.
Meet With Organizers and Members
After determining which organization best fit a student’s ideological needs, the next step is to go to a meeting. During election years, organizations hold meetings on a daily or semiweekly basis to help organize on-campus and community events. Since this is a college organization, the people at the head of the organization are more approachable than party organizers in the community or politicians. Speak about your principles and goals in volunteering with group organizers and members and you will find a common bond. This is how I found out I wanted to work with the College Democrats in 2000, by speaking with organizers and members with a shared interest. Students should also speak with community members who are involved in the same political party, if only to gain better perspective on their group’s diverse membership.
Make It Fit Your Schedule
While you may find a match ideologically with a particular party or group, you need to reconcile this with your class and work schedule. During an election season, there are more things to do in an average campaign or political group than there are hours in the day. However, involvement in a group should never act as a detriment to your grades or your work performance. During the 2000 election year, I had a particularly light semester during the election and a forgiving class schedule. However, I needed to hold off on running for the office of president until the following fall because I took an overloaded schedule in the spring semester. It is important to keep your involvement in political groups in perspective. College students aren’t political professionals and they need to consider their non-political future as paramount, at least until they get their diploma.
Become a Leader
Once you get comfortable in your role within a campus political group, don’t be afraid to go for a leadership position. There are a variety of positions available within these groups, from spokesperson to treasurer all the way up to president. These positions give college students different vantage points on the political process, a feeling for positions of responsibility, and are great resume builders. I have found that my experience as treasurer, secretary, and president of my school’s College Democrats make for great conversation starters in interviews and discussions with potential employers. Even if they disagree with the party’s politics, they always want to know what the job entailed. However, the best reason to go big in your favorite political organization is to have more of a say in the process. As president of my College Democrats chapter, I was included in the planning of an event featuring Vice President and presidential candidate Al Gore in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I helped determine the best place for the event to take place, helped get out the word with only one day’s notice, and was on stage for the event. By taking a small chance and going for a leadership position, college students can gain great experience and awesome memories.
If You Can’t Find Your Calling, Make One Up!
College students have a notorious independent streak by and large, which means that available political groups don’t always fit their needs. The Democrats, the Republicans, and every group in between may not suit a college student’s political interests. While joining groups is a great way to express oneself, an even better way to get out there and express your beliefs is to start your own group. After my term as president of my university’s College Democrats was through, I helped organize a campus group in support of a city councilman. For a few months, I was able to get a few very dedicated people to canvass for this candidate, do informal polling, and organize small events. One of the most rewarding experiences in my college experience was when this candidate won his election in a landslide, giving myself and my friends a great feeling of accomplishment. My example is only one of the thousands that take place across the country and anyone interested in getting involved in politics on campus needs to consider the best fit for their particular needs.