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Sustaining political engagement a challenge

Carleton students are known to be intelligent and involved; it is commonly believed that these traits should, and do, translate automatically into an immense interest in world affairs and issues that might not directly affect us as Carleton students. We have various student organizations on campus that serve the interest of Carleton students, from Amnesty International and the Carleton Democrats. Yet, student leaders of these organizations agree that there is much left to be desired of Carleton students’ activism on political and social issues.

Becky Canary-King, a sophomore from Michigan, joined the Carleton MPIRG (Minnesota Public Interest Research Group) as a freshman and currently holds the position of Organizing Intern. MPIRG is a statewide student-run grassroots organization that is committed to serving public interest; its current points of focus are environmental awareness and homelessness in Minnesota. She describes her experience with Carleton’s activism scene as being mostly positive, as she gets to meet “lots of like-minded people.” Carleton’s small size allows her to interact one-on-one with members of her organization and permits more personal involvement.

However, she laments the low turnouts for meetings that these organizations hold which are always open for the public. “I know lots of people who care, but only seven or eight will actually show up for a talk or a meeting that we organize,” she says. She speculates that this may be due to the busy lifestyles that Carleton students lead, and describes her work with the MPIRG as being extremely “time-consuming”, though rewarding as well. She explains that if she were playing a sport for the college, for example, it would be impossible for her to be actively involved with MPIRG on top of school and work.

Another active student leader, Jill Rodde, a junior Political Science major from Minnesota, holds similar views. She is currently the Vice-President of the Carleton Democrats (CarlDems), an organization dedicated to student activism in the world of politics. It has led various successful campaigns on a local, state and even national level. Rodde also splits her time between MPIRG’s Democracy Task Force and STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur). She explains that organizations at Carleton recognize the need for greater student involvement and are taking various steps to increase it. Besides tabling to raise awareness, she will be taking part in activism training which consists of learning how to be a more engaging student activist, as well as effective door-knocking and phone-calling techniques.

Like Canary-King, she appreciates the benefits that come with Carleton’s small size, while being aware of the disadvantages. “It’s so much easier getting to know lots of socially active people,” she says, “and not having to start meeting by describing the issue at hand itself, but rather just delving into the deeper concerns and talking about what we can do to help.” On the downside, she explains that it becomes a lot more difficult to organize large-scale projects due to a lack of sufficient student participation which can sometimes be “frustrating”.

Professor Tun Myint, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, shares his view of Carleton students as being “politically aware and engaged”. He hails to Carleton from Indiana University (IU), where he earned his PhD and was subsequently a postdoctoral research fellow, teaching and researching on democracy and environmental governance with a focus on Southeast Asia. When comparing his experience at IU to his experience here, he describes both to be positive but in different ways. “Due to the massive size of IU, there was a greater breadth of issues taken up by students,” he explains. “The moment that anything happened in any part of the world that was a cause for concern, tables would spring up with hoards of students campaigning and fundraising.”

At Carleton this may not be the case; he is struck by the intensity of the engagement with issues that Carleton students display. He is a strong advocate of student engagement with world issues, as he himself spent much time on the Burmese-Thai border as a student-soldier between 1988 and 1990. He believes that Carleton students have a deeper understanding of issues and often have a more sophisticated take on world affairs than he has seen elsewhere.

Clearly, Carleton students have the potential to be engaged in an intelligent manner, but more Carleton students need to do that instead of just a select few. We may need to re-prioritize in order to dedicate more time to issues that may not directly involve us, but are of great concern to the world outside of Carleton. We may excel in our academic analysis of global affairs in our classes, but that analysis is useless if not translated into genuine care and readiness to make change.

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