Thursday, November 10, 2016

Local Attention Gets College Students Excited About Election

(From the November 10, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I knew it would happen when the news broke over the weekend. Hillary Clinton would do a campaign rally on the Grand Valley State University campus on the day before the election. Then more news came. Donald Trump would do a rally in downtown Grand Rapids.

Let me sidetrack for a minute. My colleagues and I in the Advertising and Public Relations program have been bringing in a series of speakers about this profession. The idea is to engage students outside of the classroom, to bring lots of students together--as opposed to only those in one class. We also wanted to give the students opportunities to rub shoulders with professionals in their chosen profession, as well as alumni of our program. The attendance at these events has been ok, but not great. We have to incentivize them by making a class assignment out of it or offering extra credit.

But when I saw the news that Clinton and Trump would be coming to west Michigan, I knew getting students to attend would not be a problem. Sure enough, my email inbox started filling with the questions and comments from students. I smiled at some of them, because they were written professionally and persuasively, the way I teach them to write. They knew that there were group presentations in class today, but.... they all began. Then came the careful arguments. We could postpone the presentations until Wednesday and do them in the writing lab. Perhaps they could hand them in without presenting them. These were the solutions. The rationale was more precious. They pointed out this is the first election in which they had the opportunity to vote. They told me, as if I didn’t grasp it, that having both major candidates in a presidential election on campus and in town on election eve was a rare opportunity.

I didn’t make them wait too long. I sent a blast email to the class that we would not meet today and gave them instructions for what to do outside of class, after the rallys, to be ready for Wednesday. It must have been for them rather like an impending snow day in the winter semester. We’re not having class, right? I can’t believe we’ll still have class. He HAS to cancel class! Finally, relief and glee: class is cancelled.

But I also made this a teachable moment. Since the class I released was my media relations class, I told them to observe carefully everything they can at the live rally, and then to look at the media coverage later. I told them to look at TV, radio, print. I told them to look in native format and on apps and web sites. Then I asked them to compare if the media captured what they saw.

One student had already done this when Donald Trump Junior was on campus last week. In an email to me he bemoaned the fact that the subsequent news reports focused entirely on a handful of protestors with no details on what the young Trump said. “It was very one-sided,” he noted with the certainty and disappointment of a veteran pundit. Another student also expressed her disappointment that the protestors at that event seemed bent on preventing anyone from being heard. “I’m fine if you disagree with a speaker,” she said. “But let the speaker speak so the rest of us can hear. It was very childish.”

Millennials are growing up. They are getting freedom, and with it the car keys, utility bills, and all the incivility the world has to offer.

But there is hope. I recall the year 1984, when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. As a journalism major at Central Michigan University at the time, I drove down from Mt. Pleasant to Grand Rapids to hear a president speak on the banks of the Grand River by the Ford Museum. I came with a friend, a photographer, and we got photos and a story for student media. It was a thrill of an assignment. It was the first presidential election in which we could vote. I don’t remember now, but I probably got out of class that day. I do know that I and my friend were more excited than we had ever been on a snow day.

I saw that kind of excitement earlier this week. This column is in the paper two days later, when we know the results. But at the beginning of the week we did not, and Michigan was in play when in previous years campaigns took us for granted. Young people were excited, as they should be.

One student in particular represented this. A soft-spoken African-American man who works in an athletic shoe store when not in class, he came to my office and gently knocked. He inquired about my weekend, and if my wife is also a runner. We chatted about that a bit. Then he asked about missing class. He wanted to go to the Clinton rally on campus and then the Trump rally downtown.

“Both candidates, right here, the day before the election,” he said, lifting his hands and shaking his head. “I have to go, I just have to go.”

“Yes,” I said. “You do. You really do. And I think it’s great you’re going to both.”

I didn’t ask him for whom he planned to vote. In the moment, I didn’t think it mattered. Sometimes it’s more about the process than the politics.