Gettysburg College students distinguished as leaders in civic engagement

Penn Hall in the fall
Gettysburg College campus during fall 2020 when students voted in the presidential election

This November, Gettysburg College earned platinum status for the ALL IN Democracy Challenge—a national and nonpartisan initiative to encourage informed participation, citizenship, and civic learning in higher education. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) reported that 80% of Gettysburg College students voted in the 2020 presidential election. Only 47 colleges across the country received this platinum status distinction from more than 800 campuses that have joined the competition since its launch in 2016.

Every day, Gettysburg College is actively living its promise to inspire students to lead lives of meaning, service, and consequence through excellence in democratic engagement. Voting in record-breaking numbers, Gettysburg College students continue to prepare themselves to see the future effectively and become instruments of change.

“This generation of students is eager to raise its voice, to be heard, and to make a difference. At Gettysburg College, we teach them how,” said President Bob Iuliano. “While many colleges and universities aspire to graduate engaged citizens, Gettysburg is acting in a purposeful way to focus our education on this form of civic literacy, comprehension, and responsibility. This is a core tenet of our new strategic plan, and it is rewarding to see this commitment already taking root across our community.”

Lauren Cole ’19 remembers the day she walked up to a voter registration table in the College Union Building during her sophomore year in 2016. It started with a conversation. She quickly learned how her vote could have a greater impact if she changed her place of residence. Even though she’d just transferred, it made sense to think of Gettysburg as her home.

“Some of the larger conversations happening on campus and nationally inspired me to get involved in voting,” said the political science major, who recounted childhood moments spent alongside her parents as they cast their ballots in Connecticut.

Cole voted in her first presidential election in 2016—and has only become more passionate every year since. Now the program manager for the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C., she encourages undergraduates to become informed global citizens who lead with integrity and garner influence.

“Her expertise was invaluable,” said Center for Public Service (CPS) Director Jeff Rioux, who sought Cole’s partnership to increase voter turnout in 2020 after 56% of Gettysburg students voted in 2016 and just 36% voted in 2018, according to data provided by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education.

“In 2016 and 2018, we were about average. Then in 2020, we were well above average—so that means we did something unique. We did something special,” continued Rioux, who attributed the increased engagement to collaborative and robust campus-wide efforts.

Cole and Eisenhower Institute colleague Kevin Lavery ’16 developed a user-friendly website with clear information about how students could vote, where to vote, and how to request a mail-in ballot. She also hosted virtual sessions to answer individual student questions, drawing from her own experiences as an undergraduate.

Meanwhile, CPS transitioned their student leadership model, in response to the pandemic, and created working groups to make a transformational difference. The new “Activism and Advocacy” working group was led by Kate Estell ’21, Nicole Carach ’21, Juliet Aguilera Gonzalez ’22, and Srey Nich Vunn ’22.

Divisions across campus also united to compile resources and provide accessible and reputable information for distribution on websites and social media. Students sent personalized emails directly to eligible students who were registered in Adams County but weren’t on campus in the fall due to hybrid learning from COVID-19 to make sure they were informed. When the polling location changed, students organized walking groups to secure participation.

“We were really just passionate about ensuring everyone had equal opportunity to make their voices heard,” Cole said. “We couldn’t have had the success we did without the students. They’re the ones who put in the tremendous work to make that happen.”

While motivating students to vote is important, Rioux added that teaching the life-changing skills of how to advocate, form interdisciplinary coalitions of likeminded people, and work together toward a greater good is work worth doing — it challenges them to think holistically about the future they can create.

Today, Cole is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in security policy studies from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In 2018, she joined other Gettysburg College students to register more than 300 people to vote in the midterm election. In 2016, she was one of the more than 350 people who were registered to participate in the election on campus, and has served as an election official for the last four elections in Arlington County, Virginia. No matter where she calls home, Cole still maintains a sense of pride that she found a voice in her community.

Learn more about the Center for Public Service and how they challenge students to “think critically and act compassionately” through education, direct action, community building, policy, dialogue, and research.

By Nicole Patterson
Photo by Shawna Sherrell
Posted: 11/23/21