Stephanie Krauth, Associate Vice President of Student Engagement, Texas Woman’s University
May 24, 2019
Texas Woman’s University, the nation’s largest female-focused institution and a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), launched its first civic engagement initiative this past year. Building a civic ethos at a very diverse and unique institution in our current political climate was a significant challenge, but with some amazing collaborations, innovative initiatives, and surprising sources of student leadership, we made “Pioneers Vote” a reality.
Civic engagement on a college campus depends on the creation of an environment cognizant of the characteristics of its student population and respectful of the diverse opinions of all those in the campus community. In a national political and social environment where the act of engaging civically feels even more “risky”, how do we engage our diverse campus populations in a way that inspires and empowers them to use their voices and join in dialogue? At Texas Woman’s University, the answer has been to create civic engagement initiatives unique to our student population using research, best practices, and cross-campus collaborations.
While many argue that the current political climate reflects an atmosphere of divisiveness, anger, and a disregard for civility, one potential positive has been the dramatic increase in political engagement, especially with women and underrepresented populations (NYT). Most visible in the 2018 US mid-term election of the House of Representatives, women captured 111 seats, a new record (Dunford et al., 2018). However, some analysts argue that identity politics frequently does not benefit any party long term (Tackett, Gabriel, & Eligon, 2017). In addition, scholars contend that women approach politics and civic engagement in fundamentally different ways, resulting in decades of underrepresentation (Lawless & Fox, 2013). Therefore, how do we continue to cultivate a spirit of political engagement in women and other underrepresented populations? Moreover, just as important, how do we encourage civil discourse across the political spectrum?
Frequently, a lack of female representation is assumed to be related to cultural bias. However, research has shown that women who run for office are elected at similar rates as men (Lawless & Fox, 2013; Lawless & Pearson, 2008). Instead, the uneven representation appears to reflect both structural barriers in the nomination process (Lawless & Pearson, 2008) and the lack of women seeking office or even being willing to consider it (Lawless & Fox, 2013). Therefore, to truly make long term gains in more diverse representation at all levels of public service, strategies engaging a reluctant or seemingly more passive student population need to be employed and emphasized.
At Texas Woman’s University, we do not have a student organization based around a political party (College Republicans, College Democrats). It is not part of our culture. Civic engagement initiatives that have proven effective have centered on empowerment, mentoring, and addressing issues of social change. For example, our Pioneering Politics events included panels of local and regional women in public service focusing on their journeys and the impact they have made in the lives of others. Our other speaker events took on issues such as DACA and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico that aligned with our role as a HSI. In Texas, voter registration is still a paper process with special training required for those who facilitate voter registration (voter registration deputies). At TWU, our political science honorary (Pi Sigma Alpha) and our pre-law club (“The Barristers”) saw this as an empowering opportunity to have each member receive the designation of voter registration deputy and lead the voter registration initiative.
Texas Woman’s University is just concluding its first year of building a civic ethos across our campus. We are looking forward to building on our civic engagement foundations by embracing the uniqueness of our student body and their potential to engage with and influence communities.
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