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Best & Brightest: From Concerned Alum to Policymaker

When Southern Methodist University student Warren Seay Jr. applied for a Truman Scholarship, he wrote the judges about his deep concerns about public education and included troubling data about his high school in the Dallas suburb of DeSoto.

After Seay submitted his Truman application, he learned of a pending vacancy on the DeSoto school board due to a trustee retiring.

Not only did he run, Seay, a senior majoring in political science and public policy, handily defeated two teachers old enough to be his parents. At age 20, he now holds elected office.

“We ran a very focused campaign. I’m honored to have the opportunity,” says Seay, who’s spending the summer in a leadership program aimed at Black male college students. The program, known as the Institute for Responsible Citizenship (IRC), is unrelated to his election.

Seay is among a growing number of minority college students involved in politics and civic engagement, on- and off-campus. While it’s easy to assume that President Barack Obama’s historic tenure has inspired many young people of color, scholars say that the reasons run far deeper.

Both major political parties explicitly targeted the youth vote in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. That, in turn, has made young people more socially aware, experts say. And Seay says that his pubescent affinity for history and government became further stoked by the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks as he wondered, at age 13, what could have led to such unthinkable events?

Dr. Pei-te Lien, a University of California, Santa Barbara political science professor, says young U.S. minorities also are spurred into activism by anti-immigrant sentiment, despite many of them being U.S.-born and even lacking immediate family who are foreign-born.

“Young minorities see it as a zero-sum game,” says Lien, who’s also co-president of the Race, Ethnicity and Politics section of the American Political Science Association. “They see marginalized U.S. populations under attack, and consequently, they see themselves under attack.”

Seay had served as president of his SMU fraternity and in high school as senior class president. Last summer, he held an internship through IRC letting him work in the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contracts and Compliance Program in Washington, D.C.

As a school board trustee, he hopes to get DeSoto alumni involved in mentoring and possibly tutoring students.

“There shouldn’t be so much underachievement,” he says, making note of DeSoto’s middle-class aspects. “The schools have nice facilities. DeSoto has nice streets.”

Seay approached his campaign the way he does exams, studying not only school district budgets but also a year’s worth of transcripts and recordings of every board meeting. He appeared at televised debates alongside his opponents, hoping that his candidacy would not be perceived as a gimmick.

The May election saw him win 70 percent of the vote.

Ironically, Seay isn’t sure he will use his Truman Scholarship, which would provide up to $30,000 toward graduate study. Because his school board seat is a three-year term requiring him to live in-district, he faces stiff geographical limitations on the universities he can even consider.

But the tradeoff would be okay, he says, describing his incumbency as “a way of giving back” to his alma mater.

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