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What Higher Ed Can Learn from Ocasio-Cortez Campaign

Ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley of New York in the Democratic congressional primary, many news outlets have covered what this means for the Democratic Party. Stories have come out about how Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist, was able to win, and the likelihood of Ocasio-Cortez becoming the youngest congresswoman ever.

As a native of the Bronx, I followed her campaign closely as she was active on social media to educate her followers of her campaign and her ability to represent the district better than her opponent. This was the first time I was excited and engaged with local elections. Although I have been active in voting in local elections, I had never come across a candidate that represented my community in the ways that she did. Despite living in Philadelphia and being unable to vote in that election, I was eager to share her posts and talk to people about her campaign.

College-educated citizens are more likely to vote in political elections, yet young voters (18-29) generally have the lowest turn-out. Given Ocasio-Cortez’s success in engaging first-time voters despite being significantly underfunded compared to her opponent, I find that her election has many lessons for colleges throughout the nation to take note of in engaging their students and surrounding communities to participate in local elections.

1. Excite students about the opportunity of change over the doubt that their votes matter.

Although this was her first campaign and she was running against a senior politician who was thought to replace Nancy Pelosi as the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, this did not stop her from advocating for her community. According to the New York Times, the last time Rep. Crowley had a primary challenger was in 2004, a time when Ocasio-Cortez was too young to vote. Ocasio-Cortez used this to her advantage by criticizing his long-time tenure, yet his failure to truly represent the people of the district in the Bronx and Queens. Ocasio-Cortez reminded her district that her role is to represent their needs and that the Democratic party should not assume their support.

For higher education, it is pertinent to use election results like this to engage and empower students to see how much their votes matter. Ocasio-Cortez was able to engage voters by focusing on citizens that “the establishment” usually ignores — young eligible voters, underrepresented minorities, working-class people and those who report being “too busy” to vote. While young voters, including college students, report not feeling that they can make a difference or are simply too busy to vote, stories like these can remind them that they can have a significant role in the result of an election. Despite low turn-out overall for this primary election (although seemingly higher than usual), much of the success of Ocasio-Cortez’s win was due to the first-time voters in the district, many of which were young and underrepresented ethnic minorities. Colleges and universities have a significant amount of eligible first-time voters — it should be an institutional goal to have high rates of voter turn-out on their campuses.

2. Identity matters—don’t ignore it.

Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native, tied her campaign to her and her families’ experiences in the Bronx, which helped her connect to the voter base. In an interview with Remezcla, Ocasio-Cortez said there is a difference between “Vote for me, I’m Latina” and “Latinas deserve representation and a seat at the table.” Despite those claiming she won simply because she was more representative in terms of identity and demographics of her district, she tactfully demonstrated that her identities weren’t the reason she won, but they were rooted in her campaign and allowed her to connect more authentically with her district.

For colleges and universities located in districts that have a high population of eligible voters that are unlikely to vote (underrepresented minorities, people who have multiple jobs, and/or young adults at the college or local community), institutions should recognize the identities of their students and local community and engage them to address their lack of representation in voting and in politics overall. Perhaps if institutions took on the responsibility to address apathetic voters, they may be recognized for having an impact — especially if their efforts were associated with surprising results or high turn-out. This can be particularly important for local elections that traditionally have very low turn-out. By creating initiatives to directly engage students and local communities, colleges and universities have an opportunity to not only increase civic engagement on their campuses, but use that momentum to demonstrate to their constituents that their voices matter and that the institution is dedicated to making sure those voices are heard.

3. Pay attention to the often-ignored.

Beyond replacing someone who has held their position for decades, another reason why the Ocasio-Cortez win was such a surprise was because of the lack of attention her campaign had from the media overall until the very end. Why? She was not part of the establishment. Of the media outlets that did give her campaign some attention, oftentimes the focus was on her opponent.

This rings true about the ways in which we look at highly resourced, elite institutions to inform what works best in the realm of higher education. Given that Minority Serving Institutions, community colleges, flagship state schools and the many other types of institutions that are not as highly resourced than the Ivy League are more likely to be enrolling and educating students who are unlikely to vote, shouldn’t we pay attention to what they are doing to engage these eligible voters? Focusing on the success of institutions that are often invisible in terms of “best practices” can help inform our understanding of what actually works best.

Providing a postsecondary education to its students is at the core of why colleges and universities exist. However, these institutions should take on the responsibility of empowering their students to participate in local and national elections. The success of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has given many insights into ways to engage voters during local elections. Hopefully, higher education takes notice.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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