Virtually Navigating an Election Season on Campus
October 22, 2020
On the edge of a particularly contentious election and with a new surge of COVID-19 cases, campuses across the nation are feeling the heat as they prepare to support their community before and after the elections.
In an open letter addressed to his students at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, Vice President for Student Affairs, Frank Shushok Jr., encouraged students to vote, while urging them to participate in civil discourse as they navigate conversations across the political divide.
“I care deeply about my relationships and my community—as I know you do—and we can work together to define the kind of community we want to be, before and after the election. In fact, this points to the most helpful and empowering question that we can ask: “Who do we want to be?”
“The letter is an invitation for dialogue because the democratic process does not end on the day of the election,” says Shushok. “No matter who wins, our hard work has to continue to bring us together. We can’t take our eyes of the ball – which is, what kind of humans do we want to be, and what kind of a world do we want to create.”
The Virginia Tech Center for Leadership and Service Learning, VT Engage, ran several virtual workshops and events as a part of voter education week from October 5 to October 9 and is offering free shuttle rides to students and educators to early voting centers. They’ve also been hosting virtual watch parties for the presidential debates, and student groups, staff, faculty, and residence halls have been convening in small groups to discuss how they’d like to be present for the community after the elections.
“Small groups are a unit of transformation. Leading up to the election we want to ensure there’s an ongoing discourse within various groups on how to show up after the election,” says Shushok. “We are hosting a virtual convening on November 4 so people can be compassionate, gracious, and empathetic, while we discuss how to move forward together.”
At the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Crossroads, the campus civic engagement center, is collaborating with various on-campus organizations to support their voting and election initiatives.
During voter education week events planned by the Student Government Association (SGA), they sent short video messages on the importance of voting to share on social media. As the UA Greek community comprises of more than 35 percent of the undergraduate population, the center is hosting ‘Talk-tober’ with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life – which is a series of dialogue-based events leading up to the election, spotlighting student voices and offering resources to guide civic discourse amidst political divides. In early October, the center partnered with the SGA and the League of Women Voters UA chapter to host a virtual panel featuring notable female speakers, like the chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, to talk about voting rights.
“One of the democratic values is the intention to bring together as many voices as possible to solve a common problem,” says A. Jackson Harris, program coordinator at Crossroads. “We try to make sure that our work at Crossroads is representative of those values.”
UA campus opened for in-person classes earlier this Fall, but as Covid-19 cases continue to rise, the campus will be going virtual after the Thanksgiving break. This change of plans pushed the center to rethink their post-election plans.
“Our post-election timeline is shorter than it would be during a normal election cycle, so we are focusing on building a resource library that prepares students with the skills and awareness that it’s possible to have conversations with people you don’t always agree with,” says Lane McLelland, director of Crossroads.
The resource library offers a series of digital civic engagement tools, including a campus dialogue toolkit and dialogue guide that helps navigate tough civic conversations around race and diversity. The library also has interactive games like ‘Cast your vote’ that teaches how to vote, and ‘Bad News’ that focuses on disinformation during the election. There are also resources like the UA voting guide, a link to contact elected officials, information on the 2020 consensus, and other ways to be civically engaged around campus.
With less than two weeks remaining in the election season, campuses like Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are innovating ways to engage in virtual civic discourse while being mindful of their community’s mental health.
“There is very limited emotional and physical energy right now. Everyone’s already giving their 110% with the pandemic, hybrid learning on campuses, personal struggles, and the upcoming election. We want to be careful in the way we plan so we don’t exhaust our community,” says Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Calvin.
Pruim shares that her office’s focus has been on creating bite-sized self-paced resources so people can access and learn at their time and convenience. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion created a ‘small steps’ resource library that houses short videos from faculty and staff talking about diverse civic dialogues, like ‘how to engage your political “enemy”,’ a guide to navigating polarized times in the classroom, and various perspectives on the day after the election.
Thinking of the day after elections and beyond, Pruim shares her office is planning to host a campus-wide convening and small facilitated affinity groups in collaboration with student organizations like Calvin University Republicans and Calvin University Democrats.
“We want to create spaces for people to mourn or rejoice and destress after the election, without feeling like one group’s emotions is hurting the other,” says Pruim.
Pruim adds that post-election the campus’ focus is on creating spaces for dialogue, especially among those who belong to opposite ends of political and ideological spectrums.
“We are planning these story table events where we will invite a few people to share their stories on a particular topic, like their political ideologies, and it’s not a space for debate, but to learn and understand where each person is coming from – because ultimately, that’s what will help us learn how to move forward as a community.”
American Civic Life