Founding Fifteen Campus Connections: Allegheny College

Pictured from left to right: Amani Green, Bianca Sanchez, Kaylan Parker, Bintou Fofana, and India McCruter

This year, AGF is celebrating ten years of impact with the Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere Program. One of “Founding Fifteen” campuses, the Campus Team at Allegheny College reflected on the past ten years and their hopes for the future of civic engagement on the campus in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

Allegheny College has been an Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere campus since the program began back in 2014! What barriers to voting existed on campus prior to 2014?

Our campus is divided into three voting precincts and most of our students live in two of these precincts. One of the precincts is a fair distance from the campus and students without cars must walk down a very busy road that has no sidewalks. On top of this, we are a residential college. Students must live on campus or in college-owned housing (with few exceptions). Students generally change their residential address each year as they move from one dorm to another and, in many instances, this means that their polling location changes from one year to the next. For some students, these circumstances created barriers that made it more cumbersome to register to vote and cast a ballot.

Prior to 2014 when Allegheny College began its partnership with AGF, there had been efforts on campus to register students and encourage them to vote. However, these efforts were less centralized, coordinated, and institutionalized. We needed more students who could focus on civic engagement work as a primary commitment. We needed more students actively promoting
democratic participation in each election cycle. We also needed students who could think beyond any given election cycle to develop sustainable structures for civic engagement work.

From what you know of how things were in 2014, when it comes to voting and civic engagement on campus, what are some of the most noticeable changes?

In the presidential election cycle before Allegheny College partnered with AGF, our rate of student voting was barely 50%. In the midterm election before our college partnered with AGF, the student voting rate was in the single digits. This was partly because our college did not have institutional structures dedicated to promoting voter registration and voter turnout. Likewise,
many students engaged with civic engagement work were balancing that work with many other commitments. That began to change when AGF began supporting student efforts on our campus.

When AGF began supporting students with stipends and an activities budget, and the expert guidance provided by AGF staff, we saw immediate results. The students who became our college’s first AGF Ambassadors were able to make civic engagement a significant, sustained priority. They initiated a partnership with our college’s Center for Political Participation and began organizing large-scale voter registration events. They used funds from the AGF-provided activities budget to rent a shuttle service that brought students to the polls. They also organized several events leading up to Election Day. After we began our partnership with AGF, student turnout in the first presidential and midterm election cycles rose significantly. And we have largely sustained a higher rate of participation in the years since. Without a doubt, American democracy has experienced significant challenges during these years which have motivated more students to get involved in political life. However, the support provided by AGF helped students at Allegheny meet the moment by being prepared to help students participate in elections. Likewise, AGF helped students at Allegheny organize events that helped students learn more about the issues at stake in recent elections.

One additional change also warrants mention. Students supported by AGF recently succeeded in advocating for an important change to our college’s academic calendar. In 2024, there will be no classes on Election Day to make it easier for students to get to the polls. Additionally, students supported by AGF will be actively involved in the college’ plans to promote participation in the 2024 election. This will include the operation of a shuttle service and will also include contributions to an “Allegheny Votes” website that the college will maintain to provide students with ready access to information about voter registration, polling locations, and events related to the 2024 election cycle. This marks a deepening of the relationship between AGF and the college.

How has the general campus’ perception of voting and civic engagement evolved since 2014?

One of the most significant changes is that more administrators and faculty know about the work AGF-supported students are doing. Over the past decade, AGF Ambassadors have developed and maintained relationships with administrators and faculty who are invested in civic engagement work. That was very intentional. Some of the first AGF-supported students at Allegheny recognized that many students graduate between election cycles and many students who are unfamiliar with AGF’s efforts arrive each year as freshman. They realized that, although building relationships with their fellow students was very important, they also needed to build relationships with individuals who would work at the college long after any particular cohort of students graduated. They also recognized that administrators and faculty had decision-making power to set long-term institutional priorities. So, they began to develop relationships with administrators and faculty and those relationships have helped pave the way for a more robust approach to civic learning and civic engagement at our college. AGF-supported students are now contributing to the Allegheny Votes website for 2024 and they recently succeeded in changing the campus calendar so that there will be no classes on Election Day. That happened because administrators and faculty have come to trust the work of students supported by AGF.

How has your Campus Team reflected on the legacy of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Freedom Summer 1964 over these ten years?

We reflect the legacy of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Freedom Summer each time we prepare to do voter outreach efforts with students on Allegheny’s campus. These activists were working to promote inclusion and, although they experienced more intense circumstances that we have, we draw upon their commitment to inclusivity for inspiration. For example, as Ambassadors a major priority of our work has focused on combatting antagonism towards college students who register to vote and cast ballots in the local town where we attend school. Some community members have argued that college students are not authentically part of the local community, don’t really know about the community, and thus should not be politically engaged in the local community.

Subsequently, the Andrew Goodman Campus Team has made it a priority to get information out to students about our college town’s upcoming elections, and begun to host more voter registration events so students were able to have the ability to civically participate in our college town’s local election. We want students to know what is happening nationally, statewide, and locally before they cast their votes. And we want those who are skeptical–or outright opposed–to college students participating locally to see our commitment to informed voting. We’ve even invited candidates who have expressed concerns about college students voting in local elections to candidate meet-and-greet events; some of them attended and expressed their respect for what we are doing. Like Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, we are advocating for principled democratic inclusion and we will continue to do so.

What are some ways that the Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere program has supported your efforts on campus to increase voter and civic engagement?

AGF has supported student efforts on campus to increase voter and civic engagement through hosting public events and collaboration with other non-partisan political organizations on campus. In the past Ambassadors have organized events such as “Meet the Ambassadors”, which gave Ambassadors an opportunity to introduce themselves and the mission of AGF. It also created an opportunity to help students register to vote. Other events include tabling at student protests and a community town hall about the legacy of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Freedom Summer. In terms of collaborating with other non-partisan political organizations, Ambassadors have collaborated with fellows from the Campus Voting Project to host an event about redistricting in Pennsylvania, how it affects college students, and why their vote matters. At this event students learned how to redraw district maps, which district they are in and the correct address to use when registering to vote. In addition to this, every election cycle (presidential, primary and local) AGF ambassadors have worked with Allegheny College’s Center for Political Participation with the goal of organizing shuttles to take students to their respective polling location.

What are your hopes and dreams for what civic engagement will look like on campus ten years from now?

In order to encourage critical thinking about social concerns and democratic processes, educational institutions can first improve the curriculum by including civic education into a variety of subject areas. Encouraging students to participate in community-based research, internships, and service-learning initiatives help to establish important connections between academic knowledge and real-world issues while also reinforcing the value of civic engagement. We envision that Allegheny College will continue to support open debates that will enable students to share a range of viewpoints and gain the abilities needed for positive civic involvement. We envision a student culture that more effectively uses social media and other emerging tools for civic engagement. Over the next ten years, we expect Allegheny to develop a generation of engaged individuals who are ready to make a significant impact on their communities and bring about constructive change. And we believe that AGF’s continued work on our campus will be part of what makes that happen.

What are the team’s main goals to increase and support voter engagement and turnout in 2024?

The AGF team at Allegheny College would like to be more involved with political and service organizations and clubs on campus. We believe that the process of working with student organizations to spread information will allow our team to reach more students and encourage them to be more interested in local government. We have plans to continue doing events that
reflect our more successful turnouts like our “Donuts for Democracy.” We hope that more events like this will provide incentive to attend our informational meetings, and that we can not only gain interest for voting but also for the program.

Stay tuned as we continue our Campus Connections series, featuring each of our Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere Campus Teams, the impact made on campus, and how they are living the legacy during this pivotal point in our nation’s history.