Getting Students Engaged in the Political Process at Loyola University Chicago

By Maura Sullivan Hill, Writer, Loyola University Chicago

 Loyola University Chicago senior Will Gaudet (right) registers to vote in the Damen Student Center on September 25 as part of a National Voter Registration Day drive. In advance of the 2018 midterm elections, Loyola helped nearly 800 students register to vote through registration events on campus. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

Loyola University Chicago senior Will Gaudet (right) registers to vote in the Damen Student Center on September 25 as part of a National Voter Registration Day drive. In advance of the 2018 midterm elections, Loyola helped nearly 800 students register to vote through registration events on campus. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

Loyola University Chicago law student Grant Bosnich is among a group of student volunteers leading a campaign on Loyola’s campuses to register students to vote this fall. Taking on a leadership role in the democratic process might seem natural for a future lawyer, but Bosnich’s motivation comes from an unexpected source: his own failure to vote in the 2016 election.

“I made every excuse for why I didn't vote in 2016—lack of enthusiasm for a particular candidate, a long primary cycle—but in reality, I just made a mistake,” Bosnich says. “I don't want any student on this campus to have any excuse not to vote.”

Last spring, Bosnich joined in an effort led by the Loyola Law Democrats to promote voter information and registration on campus. Then, he jumped in to the university-wide campaign to register students to vote in advance of the 2018 mid-term election. The fact that Loyola as an institution has committed itself to promoting civic engagement among the student body has only further inspired Bosnich to get involved.

“When the school invests in an idea or a program,” he says, “the message behind that investment trickles down to the student body. And that message has been received: voting matters.”

It is an important message at a time when the country is facing sharp partisan divides, but the commitment to civic engagement is nothing new for Loyola. Encouraging students to be active in the political process stems from the University’s Jesuit, Catholic mission and its commitment to social justice. Loyola promotes these values in the classroom and through service in the wider community, but it also aims to teach students that they have a voice to speak on the issues that matter to them at the ballot box.

“Voting is important not only to elect the best people; it is also where you can begin to affect positive change, however you view that change,” says Philip Hale, Loyola’s vice president of government affairs and civic engagement. “Voting is the foundation of everything that follows: being involved in your communities and getting to know your neighbors. We talk a lot about educating men and women for others, and the other is your neighbor. The other is the person who thinks differently from you.”

Fighting for social justice

 Loyola students participated in letter-writing campaigns to ask their congressional representatives to pass the DREAM Act. (Photo: Dominique Ochoa)

Loyola students participated in letter-writing campaigns to ask their congressional representatives to pass the DREAM Act. (Photo: Dominique Ochoa)

This type of participation is even more important today, at a time when many students feel like institutions are failing them.

Michael Murphy, Ph.D., a theology professor and director of Loyola’s Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage, says that he used to worry that students were complacent and disengaged. But today’s Loyola students are attentive to and hungry for justice, and increasingly engaged in this political moment. He says, “Five years ago, so many students were not voting—despite my pleas. Not today.”

Murphy has seen students in the University’s Catholic Studies minor take an active role in working toward positive change in the Catholic Church. He’s been inspired by Loyola’s Student Environmental Alliance, whose members are using scientific reasoning to challenge leaders on critical environmental issues. Every day, he speaks to students who are making a difference through service, scholarship and prayer. Murphy says, “This is the hope for anybody who loves democracy and the beautiful hope of the American project and, more importantly, the human project—our lives together in God.”

These student actions embody a commitment on the part of Loyola that extends beyond simply registering to vote. Loyola students are participating in the democratic process at local, state and national levels—and not just in election years—in the name of social justice.

When Illinois state funding for the Monetary Award Program (MAP) was in jeopardy, students rallied in support of the program, which helps low-income students afford tuition at Illinois colleges and universities through grants. Loyola students have also mobilized in support of the DREAM Act, advocating for the rights of undocumented students after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was rescinded. More than 1,500 students sent letters in support of DACA recipients to Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), to ask for her support in passage of the bipartisan DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for current DACA recipients.

While the University, alongside the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, officially supported the DREAM Act, members of the Loyola community were encouraged to contact their congressional representatives no matter which side of the debate they were on.

“Registering to vote is the starting point. First you have to register, then you need to become an informed voter,” says Hale. “Our job is to encourage students to apply the same academic rigor that they bring to their classes to voting and their civic education.”

Exercising the right to vote

But the first step for students is taking the time to register. Loyola has tried to make the process easier for incoming freshmen, by giving them an opportunity to register during Welcome Week events this fall, and through open voter registration sessions on campus as part of National Voter Registration Day on September 25.

As a result of these events, nearly 800 students have either registered to vote, requested an absentee ballot, or updated their addresses. Organizers also estimate that approximately 600 of the people they interacted with were already registered, like first-year student Stephanie Dehoorne, who voted in the primaries in her home state of Michigan and requested her absentee ballot at Loyola’s registration drive.

“As a woman, I think it is really important to take advantage of the right to vote,” Dehoorne says. “Especially in this political climate, with all of the problems that we have, it is important for youth to take advantage of the right to vote, and I’m grateful that we have resources like this at Loyola.”