A Hotbed for Local Politics, UAPB Eyes Role as National Leader in Cultivating Student Political Awareness
Students at the University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff will host their second campus forum tonight featuring political candidates for Pine Bluff’s city council, county clerk, treasurer and county judge vacancies. It is the second forum they’ve hosted for political candidates in the last two months, with the first attracting contenders for Pine Bluff’s mayoral race.
The series is part of an emerging culture of political activism and awareness at UAPB, a shift that began with an idea from student leaders to attract and engage the university’s incoming freshmen to become more involved citizens throughout their college careers. The effort has grown to become an identity-shaping theme among the entire student body, and some student government officials hope that it will make UAPB a national model for political engagement on college campuses.
“We wanted to make Pine Bluff more of a college town, so we reached out to the mayoral candidates to find out how they would reach out to incorporate UAPB into plans for the city and its development,” says UAPB Student Government Executive Director Marquies Carter. The senior industrial technology major says that the effort to build political awareness among the students has served as an eye opener for the campus, and has paved the way for real programming around voter registration and political discussion.
Since launching the series, Carter says more than 500 UAPB students have been registered or have started the process of registering to vote, by way of more than 50 independent voting drives organized by campus student organizations. A large number for a campus of just over 3,000 students, Carter says that consistently meeting students where they are is the key to making political activism “cool” on the campus.
“We utilize the Greek organizations, because wherever the Greeks are, a large portion of the student body is going to be, also. In the midst of students having fun, we inquire about them getting registered to vote. We ask them, ‘Hey, while you’re here, are you registered to vote?’ We’re going to dorms, going to the student union, and we take all of our possible free time to make people aware of the process.”
“At football games, we get you coming in the gate, coming out of the gate, at the concession stands… We make sure you know we’re there to get you involved in the process.”
Carla Martin, Esq. is the dean of the UAPB School of Business and an advisor to the Student Government Association. She says that the students’ excitement for municipal political culture is building a positive response in communities surrounding the university.
“It’s exciting when you see young people interested in exercising their political voice. And its not just this series, we’re celebrating constitution day, making changes to freshman elections, bringing in aldermen and having them work with our student elections. We’re definitely seeing a positive response from community members asking, ‘How can we participate? How can we learn more?’
Since launching the candidate forum series, no candidate has declined an invitation to appear at UAPB. Martin says that attendance at the last event approached nearly 200 people, with nearly a ’50/50 split’ between students and community members in the audience.
Martin expects a larger crowd at tonight’s event.
“When you’re dealing with young people who haven’t participated in a presidential election, we’re trying to capture that eagerness and inform them at the same time. Timing has played a large part with the issues students are facing, the issues being discussed at local and national levels and they want to try out their voice and see if it will be heard. It will help them in the next four years in our local elections. They are citizens and residents, and our aldermen and mayors need to be aware of that.”
“Voting is a part of the purpose of life. This is a baby step in getting young people active in politics for the rest of their lives.”
As for the future goals of UAPB’s political identity, Carter believes that UAPB’s new tradition of student political activism is in capable hands.
“I think we’re setting the tone. There are a few people on cabinet this year who are sophomores and juniors and we’re making sure that they can keep passing it down. We’re definitely getting the freshman more engaged, and they are more engaged than the upperclassmen because of all the discussion and concern about their Pell Grant. Their fresh, trying to see what’s going on, and able to see that they can give their input.”
“I’m excited that we’re able to set this tone and to leave a mark at the university to know that students will be involved. I’ve learned a lot and will take these experiences into my life and career.”