Shin ’17: The university citizen

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, September 25, 2014

Amidst the jumble of hyped-up greetings and questions you are bombarded with when you return to campus after a long summer, the number one FAQ is inevitably this: “What is one exciting thing you did over the break?” While I was listening to all the adventurous and exhilarating episodes of working in labs and pursuing internships, what crossed my mind were actually the 2014 local elections in my hometown — my first voting experience as a Korean citizen.

Born to a Confucian society and raised by activist parents, I firmly believe in social activism and the civic duty of political engagement, of which voting is unquestionably the most fundamental and quintessential element. Having missed the 2012 presidential election by a whisker due to the highly controversial age limit of 19 in Korea, I was so excited to finally become a full-fledged member of society. And I did.

… Or so I thought. Now that I am back on campus, I am confronted with an inconvenient truth: I have not participated in any student government activities at Brown, not to mention the latest Undergraduate Council of Students election. While pretending to be a social activist at the vanguard of democratic values, all I ever did was run over the torn and muddied election posters on the morning rush to Barus and Holley, not caring to look at the candidates’ pledges and campaign platforms that actually might have a substantial and direct impact on my college life. Such absurdly hypocritical behavior is not alien to many other Brunonians — or students at any college, for that matter.

A surprisingly large number of students fail to realize that college is yet another society of which they are a pivotal part. In this microcosm, all the democratic principles still apply — members have certain rights and responsibilities and are governed by democratically elected representatives. The overall structure of student governments and their institutional decision-making closely resemble the democratic system of the larger American society.

Ironically enough, college also somewhat reflects the voting trends of the larger society in that about half of students at many schools do not feel the necessity and obligation to participate. This is quite shameful considering the fact that colleges are selected groups of highly educated elites as opposed to society as a whole. A large population of students is unaware of who their representatives are and what they do on universities’ different governing bodies, sometimes leaving institutions with uncontested elections and hopelessly low voter turnout.

Brown is certainly not exempt from this virulent apathy. Though voter turnout here has risen to 47 and 48 percent the past two years, Brown has been so deeply instilled with political indifference that it scored the lowest voter turnout for student government elections among the Ivy League schools in 2010 and 2011, with a historically low 26 percent. In the 2012 UCS elections, 28 percent of Brown students participated, barely reaching half the turnout rate at Yale the same year, while other Ivies remained in about the same range — Harvard with 54 percent, Dartmouth with 53 percent, Penn with 50 percent, Princeton with 45 percent and Cornell with 40 percent.

Such striking social and political apathy seems to arise among students from the prevailing perception that college is an institution not their own but that they are just passing through as mere consumers of its services. Riddled with concerns about grades, resumes and future careers, students are more interested in preparing for their splendid debut into the “real” society beyond college than the immediate issues within the society of which they are currently a part.

If we really are the anxious passengers from the poignant “Speed” analogy illustrated by Cara Dorris ’15 in her recent Herald column, “The Ivy League lament” (Sept. 15), then the University is nothing more than a speeding bus, a mere tool that we use to reach our destinations.

Nevertheless, participation in student government is a challenge that concerns all actors within the community, including not only students but also faculty and staff members. To a certain extent, the selfish bystander mentality of students is fueled by ineffective communication of necessary information, which leads to limited understanding of the organizational structure of student government, electoral processes and different channels for participation.

Moreover, the current voting process through email carries the potential hazards of critical information not getting through at all and ending up in spam boxes. The voting process and updating system definitely need some streamlining, backed up by a more substantial use of social media.

Ensuring the message gets through, however, will not automatically draw the apathetic hermits out of their caves. Communication must be bidirectional — unless the student-citizens themselves respond out of their own will, the efforts of UCS will be to no avail. The primary factors plaguing the minds of student-citizens and pushing them back into their caves are the doubts and fears that higher authorities will eventually drown their voices out and that student government plays a minimal role in the actual decision-making processes.

Granted, the power and authority of student governments are limited and pressured, but that pressure can only be overcome by greater student participation. Just like any other political elections, greater voter turnout empowers and strengthens the legitimacy of the elected representative. And it is a false notion to think UCS and the Undergraduate Finance Board are impotent, because those bodies play a considerable part in distributing student funds and establishing a climate for various student groups and activities on campus. They should not be equated with high school class representatives whose primary responsibility is to organize events like prom.

Universities are strongholds of democracy. They transmit democratic values, educate students about civic engagement and democratic behavior, and prepare them for their upcoming lives as citizens of a democratic society. Indeed, how likely is it for students who do not even care to vote online in UCS elections to take the time to vote in real elections? If universities cannot engage students in such an educational environment, then it may be an indication of a greater challenge of encouraging the citizenry to vote in national elections.

To end on a hopeful note, Brunonians are slowly recovering their sense of social involvement and responsibility. The significant recent increase in voter turnout is a very promising trend that should hopefully last long enough to create concrete and substantial change. What does being part of Brown mean to you? Is it a step toward your end goal or just another line on your resume? What does being a citizen — of both your university and your country — mean to you? I sincerely hope it is not too late for me to demonstrate that I really do care about the improvement of my community and prove I am more than words written on my resume. And I believe you can, too.


Julie Hyebin Shin ’17 is proud to be a Brunonian and wants to contribute to the Brown community through her columns as a responsible student-citizen.

One Comment

  1. UCS does not do anything that affects your life so you don’t need to worry. Do something real instead.

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