At a time when both GOP voter suppression tactics and Generation Z voter apathy threaten to plunge the number of college-aged election participants to record lows, the University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) is flipping the script.
The campus recently garnered a pair of national awards/recognitions for its efforts to increase campus voter engagement—efforts led by both school administrations and students.
During the 2020 presidential election UHCL achieved a voter turnout of 62.8% of eligible campus voters, resulting in UHCL’s recognition as a national Silver Campus Seal recipient in the ALL IN Campus Democracy challenge.
“Our institutional voter engagement goal was to get 50% of our eligible students to vote, and we exceeded that goal,” said Mohammad Khan, UHCL’s coordinator for Community Engagement in the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership.
Khan says student civic engagement became a top campus priority during the tenure of former UHCL president, Dr. Ira K. Blake.
“When she came in, one of her big passions was community and civic engagement. Part of her strategic plan was for UHCL to develop a better relationship with our community by offering intentional opportunities for our students to get involved via service learning, voting and more,” he said.
Khan took up the charge and helped coordinate a bevy of voter/election-related events, leading to UHCL’s second national recognition.
. “We also received a second national recognition—the Voter Friendly Campus award by hosting events and programs to encourage engagement like Rock the Vote, the Summer Voter Education Series, voter registration tabling events and events surrounding National Voter Education Week.
The demographic that reflected the biggest impact of UHCL’s efforts were its Asian students who experienced the largest increase in voter turnout from 2016 to 2020. Still, the group with the highest overall voting percentage were UHCL’s Black students who even outperformed the entire campus’ voting rate, with 69% showing up to the polls.
UHCL, however, didn’t rest upon its laurels after November 2020. The campus has been all-in on engaging students ever since, thanks in part to its collaboration with the Campus Vote Project, which works with colleges and election officials to reduce barriers to student voting, and sponsors students to become Democracy Fellows.
UHCL’s first Democracy Fellow, Empress-Akira Sullivan, a sophomore double majoring in psychology and anthropology, has been a huge reason why voter and civic engagement remains a top campus priority.
Inspired in part by her father, a history professor, and a speech class paper assignment where she had to research the importance of voting, Sullivan has become a force to be reckoned with, registering her peers to vote, creating civic engagement related bulletin boards and serving as a member of the campus’ Civic Engagement Coalition.
“Our Civic Engagement Coalition is a ‘think tank’ of UHCL students, faculty and staff who provide a network for sharing voter opportunities,” said Sullivan. “I also work with the Texas state coordinator from Campus Vote Project, which is the organization that pays for my fellowship.”
Sullivan seeks to convert her Generation Z peers into committed voters.
“A lot of people my age don’t see voting as the top of our priorities. I challenge them to do their part, reminding them that it’s a privilege to vote,” said Sullivan. “This stuff (issues) will affect us in the long run and it’ll also affect the people that we love and care about. Every vote matters.”
Moving forward, Khan seeks to grow city, county, business and organizational partnerships with UHCL to keep engagement high, while Sullivan will be getting some help with the coming arrival of UHCL’s second Democracy Fellow.