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stem students visiting senator office

The Alternative Breaks group met outside of Senator Harris’ office before thanking her for her support of the Dream Act.

STEM Students Dive into Democracy in D.C.

Rebeca Lopez had never traveled to another state. Her first cross-country adventure brought her to Washington D.C., where she and a dozen UC San Diego undergraduates lobbied congressional representatives and senators in support of the DREAM Act, a bill designed to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children. The unique civic engagement-focused trip was hosted by Alternative Breaks, a university-sponsored program through the Center for Student Involvement that leads service-learning trips around the world.

“I am a child of immigrants and I could easily have found myself in a Dreamer’s shoes,” said Lopez. “The more I shared my personal story, the more it gave me a new sense of confidence in knowing my voice and opinions are valid in this country.”

stem students voting

Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

The weeklong trip was dedicated to introducing students of all majors—many of them STEM—to the workings of the U.S. democracy as well as immersion in our country’s history. Through support from Associated Students and private donors, students were able to travel for just $200. “It is so important that non-political science majors such as myself are able to have an experience like this in order to truly realize the integral role that they play in our government and society,” explained Olivia Michael, a sophomore studying cognitive behavioral neuroscience.

In addition to meeting California’s senators and representatives in D.C., students had the chance to learn civic engagement strategies at James Madison University in Virginia, register voters at the Harrisonburg Pride event and discuss immigration policy with peers. The group shared their experience at the first annual California Voter Engagement in Higher Education Summit, hosted on campus by UC San Diego Associated Students and the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future on Oct. 10-11. Students from colleges across California—including the University of California and California State Universities—came together to talk about best practices in civic engagement and voter registration in higher education.

“I am so energized by the work that happened at the summit, and encouraged knowing there are so many students and administrators from throughout the state willing to travel and dedicate two days to amplify efforts surrounding student voter registration and turnout,” said Heather Belk, director of UC San Diego’s Associated Students Administration, who spearheaded the event. “All 17 campuses that participated in the summit gained connections they could use throughout the state and nation, learned about best practices and effective strategies and developed action plans for voter engagement on their campuses for the 2020 year.”

stem students talking with california representative

The Alternative Breaks group with California Representative Mike Levin.

The summit engaged students, staff and leadership in topics such as using social media and digital activations to promote voter engagement and overcoming campus apathy. The event included a video welcome from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla; a talk by Rosa Rascon from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters; as well as a town hall with John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School of Institute of Politics.

At UC San Diego, student voter turnout continues to rise. The student voting rate increased from 11.6% in 2014 to 39% in 2018, a greater growth than the national average, according to the recent National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. Student organizations like the Student Organized Voter Access Committee help register students as they move into on-campus housing, educate peers about the importance of voting at campus events and host non-partisan voting events on election day.

After taking part in the Alternative Breaks trip and presenting at the summit, Michael is eager to awaken a sense of urgency in her fellow students to vote and become civically engaged. Their weeklong excursion included a trip to Virginia, where they partnered with students at the Center for Civic Engagement at James Madison University. They led a ‘tent talk,’ prompting students to think about the question, “Have you thought about your citizenship status today, and if your status changed, how would your day change?” The question sparked self-reflection, “The empathy and engagement over the issue were so powerful and truly changed the day of many,” said Michael.

stem students posing for picture at lincoln memorial

Martin Casas, Quang Dao, Rebeca Lopez and Giselle Zarate got inspired at the Lincoln Memorial on the first night of their trip.

Students who took part in the Alternative Breaks trip are responding to the call to action to inspire civic engagement across the campus by starting a student organization called Triton’s VOICE (Volunteering, Organizing and Involvement for Civic Engagement). The group will hold “Triton Talks” to allow students a space to talk about important issues and work together to find a solution. They also plan to organize voter registration campaigns, host debate watch parties and bridge the gap between student government and the larger student population.

“I learned on this trip how much we, as students, have underestimated the power of our voices,” said Jessica Sanchez, a sophomore studying cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. “This is something that most of us don’t think about every day, but we need to implement it if we are going to be the changemakers of our generation and those to come.”