By Tim Linn, Assistant Director of University Relations, Rockhurst University
Rockhurst University is said to be “in the city for good.”
The informal motto works on two levels — it’s a pledge for longevity and a commitment to seek the greater good in service to the community.
For more than a century, Rockhurst students, faculty and staff have lived out that commitment in a variety of ways, including community service and efforts to engage more deeply with neighbors in its surrounding Kansas City, MO. In 2020, however, students, faculty and staff are leading an on-campus effort to promote civic literacy and engagement in hopes of fully living out that motto — both before and after the November 3 election.
Christened RU Voting — half a question, half a statement of purpose — the initiative is built around nonpartisan voter education and voter registration to engage young people in a highly watched election, and to build broader civic engagement efforts after the ballots are counted.
College students have a bit of a reputation when it comes to civic life — though they are a potentially consequential slice of the electorate, they don’t go to the polls nearly as often as older voters. It has led to them being dismissed as unengaged, apathetic, or worse.
The reality is more complicated, said Tom Ringenberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science and a member of the committee planning RU Voting activities. “Like a lot of groups, whether college students vote often comes down to a cost-benefit analysis because of the complexity of the rules and the time commitment necessary to vote,” he said. “Any way that we can lessen those costs of getting informed or figuring out the processes, the better that cost looks.”
Some factors work against student voters — there is a patchwork of rules from state-to-state regarding practices like absentee or mail-in voting, a particular challenge for a population that comes from all over the country. Add in further uncertainty due to COVID-19, and a lot of students are looking for answers. The RU Voting effort is meant to help connect students to information they need to make sure they are registered and know their options for voting, starting with voter registration drives and a Voting 101 event to answer their questions.
There is no doubt that plenty of students are interested in the election. Ringenberg, who was teaching at Rockhurst during the last presidential election cycle, said there are always lively conversations in his classes. But, generally speaking, students seem a little more eager to engage in the process this year. “People are paying attention,” he said.
Margaret Gerards, a senior who is also executive vice president of the Student Senate and one of a number of student representatives on the RU Voting committee, said that the last presidential election was an eye-opening experience in showing her the importance of voting. “I was engaged with the political discourse occurring, but I was a few months too young to vote [in 2016],” she said. “I realized how important my voice is in political matters — my vote is my ability to take action toward what I believe in.”
The Student Senate and the Student Activities Board have been sponsoring watch parties for some of the candidate debates, inviting students to learn more about the local and national issues at play. As a leader of one of several student organizations helping to lead the effort, Gerards hopes to be able to inspire not just a commitment to voting by her peers, but a genuine sense of wanting to have conversations and work for the “greater good” in the community where students live, both ideas very much in keeping with Jesuit traditions.
“I feel that the Jesuit core value of Magis is central to the voting initiatives taking place at Rockhurst,” Gerards explained. “These initiatives are encouraging students to think of the effect their votes could have on themselves and their community. The act of voting is doing more, giving more and being more.”
Crucially, the efforts to do more in the spirit of Magis do not stop on November 3. A second phase of RU Voting will focus on continuing civic engagement: a team is developing and scheduling events and opportunities with community partners aimed at increasing students’ awareness of and investment in issues facing the Kansas City area.
Another student member of the RU Voting committee, Abbragale Blaine, a sophomore nonprofit leadership, psychology and pre-medicine major, is helping in this effort. She said that getting students interested in what’s happening both electorally and beyond is similar to what she already does as service chair for Voices for Justice, a campus social justice organization.
“It is my job to come up with service events that correlate with the topics we are talking about,” she said. “By doing this, I am helping students gain exposure on issues that are close to home, and show them that there is change that needs to happen.”
Voting is one way to make it happen. But deep, sustained engagement with community members is another that could have long-lasting impact. More than that, as Ringenberg explained, the act of participating in civic life is an important part of the largely unspoken compact that institutions make with the communities they call home. And it’s a way to live out the Jesuit values that Rockhurst is built upon.
“In some ways, it’s an act of service,” Ringenberg said. “But if universities are going to be part of community life and be anchor institutions, this is the kind of work we should be ready to do.”