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R.I. college students navigate politics on different campuses

Students work to increase voter registration, engage fellow students in activism, public service

When Alyssa Cohen enrolled in Providence College she expected a conservative campus because of its Catholic affiliation. But she said she was not anticipating the difficulties that accompanied her liberal views.

“It’s hard sometimes,” said Cohen, who is now a sophomore.  “People can be very judgmental in knowing that you’re liberal. I have a pin on my backpack that says ‘Betsy DeVos Can’t Read’ and I get dirty looks all the time.”

Cohen’s story is just one of many from students across the Ocean State, who, regardless of their political persuasion, are navigating the biases, assumptions and partisanship that come with trying to voice an opinion on campus.

PC students are increasingly interested in politics, according to President of PC Republicans Jeff McCormac. “This year we have almost 500 people registered for the (Republicans) club,” he said, adding that he hopes to bring more conservative speakers to campus. Earlier this month, Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung visited PC’s campus. The group also organizes a trip to the Conservative Political Action Conference every year.

Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs Bob Hackey, who serves as the chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at PC, said he has seen “limited involvement” on PC’s campus in terms of political activism. Many students, instead, are involved with public service through the Office of the Chaplain, which partners with nonprofits and schools throughout the state, he added.

“We’ve seen an increase in student activism over the past few years, but for a lot of college students, activism takes a back seat with midterms, papers and projects to complete,” Hackey said. “Brown students are atypical in that they take a larger interest in student activism.”

Hackey mentioned that there is a large pro-life contingency on PC’s campus, with the Office of the Chaplain sponsoring student busses to the March for Life in Washington D.C. each January.

Though they are in the minority, PC Democrats have organized protests in light of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings, in addition to marches against racial bias in campus security incidents.

“There was a march on campus for survivors of sexual assault, and in the past there has been a lot of protesting and student activism surrounding race relations on campus,” said Caleigh Rockwal, a senior at PC. “We’ve had several instances over the past four years of racial bias, especially when it comes to our campus security, so that’s been an ongoing presence of activism on campus.”

In addition to national events, controversies on campus over the past year have drummed up political participation and interest, McCormac said. Last fall during Halloween, a group on campus invited “stressed” students to stab a “Trumpkin,” a pumpkin with President Trump’s face drawn on it.

Micol Striuli, a member of PC’s College Democrats, said that liberal students on campus feel frustrated with the political climate.“I don’t think the majority of the students realize how much recent events will affect them or other people,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to accomplish anything. It’s kind of demoralizing. People are either not willing to learn or not willing to take part.”

Savannah Plaisted, a sophomore at PC, said she has seen a discrepancy in funding between the College Republicans and Democrats. According to PC Student Congress documents for the 2018-19 school year, Student Congress awarded the College Democrats $450 last year and the College Republicans $2,265.

“That’s coming from the administration and the Student Congress itself,” Plaisted said.

Though the Providence College Republicans are the dominant political voice on campus, they said they want to work with the Democrats to promote constructive conversation.

“We are looking to do something with them,” McCormac said. “We think that might be very constructive. Any kind of constructive dialogue is always good for both sides.”

While students are active along party lines, some also are organizing around voter turnout. Rockwal has been involved with voter registration efforts on campus, working with PC’s Office of Citizenship and Off-Campus Life to run an event on National Voter Registration Day, Sept. 25. She has also worked with TurboVote to register students to vote. Over 80 students were signed up via TurboVote, according to Katrina Alicea, an administrative coordinator with PC’s Office of Residential Life.

At the University of Rhode Island, College Democrats and Republicans have worked together on a variety of initiatives ­— from lobbying for funding from URI to voter registration drives, among other initiatives, said Ed Tarnowski, president of the URI College Republicans.

“We had a bipartisan voter drive this past week,” Tarnowski said. “We’re also working with Bridge USA and the College Democrats to get funding for political groups.”

The URI College Republicans have brought in speakers through the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national organization that advocates for free speech on college campuses. The speakers have touched on how the URI student handbook infringes on student rights and have advocated against the lack of funding from the URI administration for political groups.

Tarnowski said that the College Republicans pride themselves on the level of civil discourse and constructive conversation they have with other groups on campus, adding that  the College Democrats and Republicans held a bipartisan Super Bowl party last January.

At the Rhode Island School of Design, President of the Student Alliance Sophie Chien said that while students are increasingly interested in politics, there has not been an equal increase in student activism.

“I think there’s a rise in people talking about (politics). I’m not convinced yet that there’s a rise in people doing stuff about it,” Chien said. “We talk a lot about politics on this campus, but it’s hard for people to vote here because I’d say maybe two percent of our student body is from Rhode Island.”

Chien ran voter registration drives before the midterm elections in affiliation with the Global Initiative and the Student Alliance. She emphasized the importance of facilitating absentee request forms and voter registration given the make-up of the student body. RISD is 33 percent international students, so engaging students politically can be difficult when the U.S. government is not their primary representative, Chien said.

Chein is unsure who  will continue her voter registration efforts after she leaves RISD next year. “It’s really just me,” she said. “It’s a one man show. I don’t know what will happen when I’m gone.”

Across campuses in the Ocean State, students expressed a  desire for better political discourse between groups with different political ideologies.

“I would like to see my campus become more politically aware and engaged and … (have) more respect (for different) … genders, political persuasions and races,” Cohen said. “Something that gets lost in the thick of it is empathy.”



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