Student political groups unite for Summit on Student Political Engagement
College Republican, Democrat, Libertarian clubs and a student-run publishing group form summit to ease political tensions and increase political engagement on campus
Last fall representatives from the College Republicans, College Democrats and College Libertarians came together for a Great Debate the evening before the Nov. 4, 2022, midterm elections. Facilitated by Joe Schatz, director of the Binghamton Speech and Debate program, representatives from each organization debated six hot-button issues in Old Union Hall.
“They weren’t afraid to be talking about these issues,” said Trevor Fornara ’23, who, at the time, was the founder and editor in chief of Happy Medium, a student-run politics publishing group dedicated to promoting productive political discussion. “They were really dedicated to having this great discourse and respecting each other.”
As the participants cleaned up after the event, they enjoyed a shared feeling of camaraderie and the satisfaction of a successful event. Despite their differences in ideology, they had come together to execute a productive, educational program that brought together students of many ideological backgrounds without sacrificing respect or devolving into name calling. And they wanted to do it again.
Fornara, who was covering the event for Happy Medium, and the presidents of each organization began talking about how they could create a structure for maintaining this culture of respect and open discourse, as executive boards and membership naturally turned over each year.
“I think that students are tired of the friction that they feel amongst each other — the student leaders especially — and the student leaders recognize that when there’s conflict between student organizations, both organizations are wasting their potential,” said Fornara.
The idea for the Summit on Student Engagement was born.
A bipartisan coalition on student engagement
Fornara’s first thought was to involve an office on campus that could help provide continuity, and he found the perfect fit with the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), whose nationally recognized nonpartisan voter engagement program, funded in part by the Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF), shares the goal of fostering productive student engagement in the political realm.
A coalition was formed, which includes three delegates from each of the republican, democratic and libertarian student groups, as well as the AGF Vote Everywhere Ambassadors who work through the CCE and three delegates from Happy Medium. Together, after three hours of deliberation, they drafted bylaws and ratified them over the summer.
“We really wanted the Summit to be student driven,” said Fornara. “So while there is a CCE administrator who helps with the logistics, we elect student leaders. The Summit president, vice president and treasurer help to coordinate the programming.”
This year’s leaders are Arthur O’Sullivan, treasurer of the College Republicans, as president; Peter Levy, field director of the College Democrats of New York, as vice president; and Jenna Vallone, AGF Vote Everywhere ambassador, as treasurer.
“The goal is now at the beginning of each semester, the leaders from these organizations will meet at the Summit,” said Fornara. “They will plan out collaborative programming, discuss or air grievances in a diplomatic setting and just work to genuinely promote civic education and voter engagement on campus in nonpartisan and bipartisan ways that are really breaking down the social barriers that we’ve set up and the taboos that we’ve established around those sorts of cross-party collaborations, especially here on campus with student groups.”
“One major benefit of working together,” said Vallone, a sophomore majoring in political science with a sociocultural anthropology minor, “is the ability to receive ideas from people within different political spheres all with the goal of increasing political engagement on campus. We can promote our events to people of all political backgrounds, which ultimately increases engagement on campus.”
O’Sullivan, a junior majoring in classics and biology with a global studies minor, has also seen great benefits from the collaboration that has evolved from the Summit.
“The greatest benefit of inter-club collaboration is how it forces us to moderate,” he said. “Monolithic political groups almost always risk falling into radical infighting. Having people with disagreements talk to each other face to face fixes this issue; one’s political opponents become humanized, and their perspectives likewise recognized. Thus, when these clubs moderate, the whole political climate on campus does as well.
The coalition held their first Summit event of this academic year on Sept. 19, National Voter Registration Day.
“This year we hosted our first Voter Registration Fair,” said Vallone, “which allowed students to register to vote, create an action plan and meet the organizations from the Summit and other political organizations. I am really excited about making this event bigger each year. We want to get more students registered to vote and help them connect with the campus political groups.
Future political group collaborations
Fornara, who is now the civic education coordinator at the CCE and also serves as political advisor to the current editor-in-chief of Happy Medium, said the fair was a success and they look forward to similar events going forward.
“We’ll be holding another Great Debate in Old Union Hall on Nov. 6,” said O’Sullivan. “Under the aegis of the Summit, we’re producing a sequel, including new faces, new subjects and a focus on upcoming local elections.
Fornara added that they may even add new member organizations in the future to diversify the political ideologies represented.
They are also looking into some other initiatives, such as starting a news talk show on the campus radio station, WHRW, which would bring diverse ideologies to the table to discuss current issues, and a “chalk the walk” event on Election Day.
“The work that we’re doing,” said Fornara, “is to foster a culture of greater collaboration and instill the importance of interpersonal communication skills into these student leaders in order to foster a better campus climate, decrease polarization, reduce conflict between our student organizations, increase collaboration, and increase student political engagement on a whole.”
Students interested in registering to vote can visit the CCE in UU-137 or at binghamton.edu/cce/vote. The voter registration deadline is Oct. 28. Early voting takes place Oct. 28–Nov. 5, and Election Day is Nov. 7.