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Young Activists Share Views of Campus Politics


Americans under the age of 30 voted in record numbers in the 2004 presidential election, and political groups are trying to keep that interest up even in this off-election year. That's the challenge facing students who are returning to campus motivated by attending political gatherings in Washington this summer.

New Yorker Ted Fertik, 20, and Rebecca Beach, 18, of New Jersey, attended separate events in Washington. They're at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both of them were introduced to politics by their families.

"I come from a political family and I've been involved in politics since I was about 12 years old," says Mr. Fertik, adding, "my dad is a life-long progressive political activist." Today he is the director of development for the Roosevelt Institution, a liberal, student think tank.

"I was raised in a Christian household and was home schooled," says Ms. Beach. "All of my life I was aware of politics and taught conservative values." Today she writes amicus briefs for the Eagle Forum, a conservative group founded by Phyllis Schafley 30 years ago, during her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment.

Political scientists say it's common for young people to follow the political paths of their parents. In fact, a study released earlier this year by the American Political Science Association indicates that political values may even be genetic.

But not every politically active student in the country has politically active parents. "I took a required class and started realizing how politics affect so many different facets of our society from culture to business to economics," says Jane Hendrick, 21, who attends Georgetown University in Washington. "I think government and politics is really all-pervasive. I think it is a good area where someone can make a difference."

Most young Americans are not all that interested in politics. Although record numbers of young Americans voted in November 2004, their age group still had the lowest turn-out rate, at 47%.

Trey Winslett, 20, a conservative student at the University of North Carolina, says it's hard to inspire students to attend political functions on campus. "You'd be surprised at the number of conservative students there, but they tend to be apathetic," he says. "They're more interested in going to football games, more interested in doing the other parts of college, so it's very tough to get those people interested."

But Amy Lawton, a progressive student at George Washington University says she doesn't believe students are apathetic by nature. "I think there is a lot of interest in my age group, but we are told we are young and apathetic," she says. Although she admits she can't prove a cause-effect relationship, she believes "expectation to be apathetic manifests itself in apathy."

According to Paul Schafer, a conservative student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, to overcome that apathy, you have to pique students' interest. "You have to find issues that relate to them." It's a lesson he has learned the hard way. "We had a speaker come in and talk about reforming the tax code and we had maybe ten people show up."

Taxes are clearly not an issue most students, who aren't yet wage-earners, can relate to. But there are others.

As a progressive, Yale University senior John Coggin may not agree with Paul Schafer on what those other issues should be, but he does agree that politicians must work harder to connect with young voters.

"Social security, universal health care, those (issues) are always in the media, but those don't really effect youth," he notes. "I think there are issues -- and not just the Iraq War -- that should be added to the mix. I think energy independence is a tremendously important issue. It's something that can be for this generation what the Apollo program was for the last generation."

With gas prices now at an all-time high in the United States, more students are likely to see the impact energy dependence has on their lives.

Still, showing their fellow students that politics do matter remains a challenge for all these campus activists as the new term gets underway. With no national election in November, their task will be even more difficult.

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