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Students expect Obama to be man of his word

More than 1,000 Bethune-Cookman University students head to the polls Oct. 27 during early voting for the U.S. presidential election. UMNS photos by John Reeves, Bethune-Cookman University.

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

Jan. 14, 2009

In early October, more than 1,000 students from historically black Bethune-Cookman University walked and rode 10 blocks to cast early ballots for the next president of the United States.

These students and faculty from the United Methodist-related school in Daytona Beach, Fla., and students from colleges and universities from across the country participated in democracy. Today, students are ecstatic about the role they played to bring about change in the country and to show that they care about issues — social, political and global.   

Students have high expectations for President-elect Barack Obama. They, like their parents, want the new administration to find a solution to the economic instability challenging the country, and “we expect him to be a president of his word,” said Samuel Heath, president of the Bethune-Cookman Student Government Association.

“We understand that Obama is one that does not just encourage us but tells us that there is a part that we have to play. We are going to make sure that our students understand our part but hold him accountable for his,” Heath said.

Jeff Riles

Jeff Riles, president of the student government association at United Methodist-related Oklahoma City University, agrees.

“We are all watching to see if he will deliver on promises he made during his campaign,” said Riles, a senior political science major. Most students, he said, are paying attention to the economy because of financial aid, federal loans, or family members having lost their jobs.

It could be difficult for many students across the country to attend school next year, so students will be paying attention, he said. Oklahoma City University has established a scholarship for students impacted by the economy, but “it is still going to be pretty difficult,” he said.

Graduating students are most concerned about health care and its costs, jobs and housing, Riles said. For students at his school, poverty is the biggest issue.

International integrity is another concern for students across the country and at Oklahoma City University, Riles said. “This is huge for students,” he said, especially since students study difficult cultures and learn about the world. “We see that America’s reputation has sort of been tainted in different areas.”

Return to activism

The election represented the first time that many students saw the impact of political engagement, and student government associations plan to continue civic activism and further involve students and others in politics, institutionally and locally.

Samuel Heath

“We want to make sure that students not only see Barack Obama as the first African-American president but that they understand the changes that are needed, the policies that are going to be coming forth, and to also be active within the local government,” said Heath, a senior political science major at Bethune-Cookman. “It is critical that we understand that we should be effective where we live.”

The activism of African-American college students was prominent in the 1960s when they participated in lunch counter sit-ins and marches to bring about change and fuel civil rights movements across the South. Since the 2000 presidential election, voter participation and activism have been surging.

According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan research center studying youth civic engagement, an estimated 23 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 presidential election, an increase of 3.4 million compared with 2004. CIRCLE estimates that youth voter turnout rose to between 52 and 53 percent, an increase of 4 to 5 percentage points over CIRCLE’s estimate based on the 2004 exit polls.

The election and the political process in general had a positive impact on students at United Methodist-related Dillard University, New Orleans, said Crispus Gordon, president of Dillard’s student government association.

“The election inspired students to become politically aware,” of people vying for Congress, district attorney positions and judgeships, said Gordon, a senior political science major. “It let students see all of the other electing offices that we sometimes forget about but have an impact on our lives.”

Jessica Brooks

The election also inspired many of the 785 students at Huston-Tillotson University to pay more attention to the politics in Austin, Texas, and the surrounding communities, said Jessica Brooks, student president at the United Methodist-related school.

 “A lot of the things voted on hinder our students at HT,” said Brooks, a senior criminal justice major. Instead of just focusing on what is happening on campus, “we are trying to get the students to know who is who and what is going on, so that when they do vote, they can make the vote for them and the community,” she said.

Jobs, recovery, environment

Although expectations will be high after Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, people must realize that all Obama’s promises aren’t going to be realized in the first four years, Gordon said.

Dillard’s 956 students hope the new administration will put “a lot” of money into the recovery of Louisiana, and build up the coast and levy protection so that flooding from another catastrophic hurricane cannot demolish the city as occurred following Hurricane Katrina, he said.

Dillard University sustained massive damage when Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf Coast three and a half years ago. The 2005 hurricane caused levees near the school to break, and the ensuing flooding turned the campus into a lake eight to 10 feet deep.

Gordon, like other students preparing to enter the fluctuating job market, hopes Obama’s economic stimulus plan creates jobs.

“The worst thing you could do is to graduate from college and go home to your parents,” he said. “His stating that he is going to create jobs resonated with a lot of college students.”

The environment is the unifying theme for the 850 students at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., and Obama’s tough environmental platform resonated with those concerned with green energy.

Students stand in line at the City Island Library polls to cast their vote.

According to student President Peter Davis, learning what is going to happen to the planet in the next century and to the next generation is critical.

“There is so much that we can do, and there is so much not being done,” said Davis, a senior history, secondary education and psychology major. Although people have what they need to live comfortably, he said, “we also live in an ecosystem that we are part of ... and we create a hazard for the things that keep us safe.”

Green Mountain students want “the Obama administration to take proactive steps that will help us in the future, not just help us right now,” he said.

The student government association and college officials are looking for ways to tie together the presidential inauguration with that of the school’s new president and with Earth Week in April.

Davis said students, collectively, want Obama to “address what he said he would do. It is not about deadlines but to start working on some way to help these social and environmental problems we are facing.”

Election should spark change

Students from all backgrounds participated in Rock the Vote, one of the largest, youth voter-registration organizations.

At United Methodist-related Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., students were instrumental in bringing Rock the Vote to the MidSouth, said Britton Smith, president of Rust’s student government association. More than 80 percent of Rust’s 1,100 students registered to vote.

When the first presidential debate occurred at the University of Mississippi last September, students from Rust were part of the political atmosphere discussing the future of the nation, said Smith, a senior political science major.

Smith looks to create the same atmosphere at Rust on a consistent basis. Since it was not feasible or plausible for many students to attend Obama’s inauguration, the government association and college are planning for an inaugural viewing and inaugural ball on campus. “We can directly engage with the process that is going on with the presidential tenure and change,” Smith said.

Daviea Flowers

Now that students feel they have more at stake in this election, they expect to see things that reflect their interests, such as education reform and making college more affordable, he said. There is also the belief that the new administration will “re-energize the black community” about social awareness and being politically aware, knowing the inner workings of government at the federal, state and local levels and foreign relations. “These are different elements that students now feel that they have more of a connection with,” Smith said.

The 900 students at Paine College, Augusta, Ga., and students from across the country seek additional educational support from the new administration. “The whole educational experience is going to change in a positive way,” said Daviea Flowers, Paine’s student president and an education major. “I look forward to seeing the change that is going to happen for students all over the United States.”

Acknowledging the adage that there is no freedom without education, Flowers anticipates teachers being able to forgo the current “No Child Left Behind” policy of the Bush administration, cease teaching standardized tests and return to traditional education. Teachers, she said, anticipate having a “more hands-on” instead of time-framed policy that outlines where a teacher and students should be at a certain time.

Flowers also expects that Paine’s students will “take more seriously their political role and use knowledge to be more political in the future.”

The change that Obama speaks about has had a profound effect on the students of Huston-Tillotson, and the election process has launched the students into a self-improvement mode, Brooks said. “The next step after the election was for us to begin working on ourselves,” she said. “Everyone has been talking about change, but the change starts within.”

Obama’s election “was a dramatic moment in our lives,” she said. “He cannot do it on his own. We have to step up to the plate as well.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Bethune Cookman University

Oklahoma City University

Paine College

Rust College

Green Mountain College

Dillard University


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