College Debate 2016 Convention and Town Hall


College Debate 2016 Convention and Town Hall

by Gigi Gokcek, Ph.D. and Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, Ph.D., Ed.D.

Since College Debate 2016’s official kickoff on June 1, approximately 150 student delegates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia jumped on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to engage their peers in the presidential election. Victoria Grijalva Ochoa of Arizona State University, for example, produced a video in which 40 students shared their thoughts on key issues the next president should prioritize. Victoria’s video captures the spirit of College Debate 2016 — utilizing social media to engage college students in the issues that matter most to America’s youth.

Selected as the Voter Education Partner for the Commission on Presidential Debates, Dominican University of California launched College Debate 2016 as an initiative to inspire young Americans to participate in the November election. The student delegates, representing their respective universities and colleges, began using #collegedebate16 in late Spring, reaching over one million social media users, according to Illinois State University’s Social Media Analytics Command Center (SMACC). Nathan Carpenter, Assistant Director of Convergent Media at Illinois State University analyzed Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram posts and  concluded that social media mentions of #collegedebate16 averaged one post per hour, thereby making it extremely viral. The growth in the social network created by the delegates was captured visually by the following images.  The top image shows the handles of social media users (each circle is a different user) who used #collegedebate16 between May 29 and June 5.  The lines connecting the nodes illustrate the spread. In the image below, @collegedebate16 was a major source of social media activity.


By September 5, the social media activity was significantly more expansive.  Below, the visualization shows how the activity reached one million users.


The September Convention and Town Hall


The delegates initially assembled in early June on the Dominican University campus to begin their preparation for the first ever College Debate and Town Hall. Following an eventful summer, they reconvened at Dominican University on September 6 to identify the top five issues that mattered most to them. They also took this opportunity to draft questions that they would like the presidential candidates to answer at the upcoming debates. The College Convention began with an evening of caucusing, where the delegates first debated, and eventually settled upon the following themes: social justice and civil rights, immigration, education, economy, and foreign policy.  The following day, the delegates worked in five different ‘Issue Rooms’ where they brainstormed these issues, eventually settling upon three questions per issue, which would be voted on later that evening at the Town Hall.


The Town Hall, which was moderated by Dr. Syb Brown, a professor in Department of Media Studies at Belmont University, was live streamed not only at, but also via ABC News Live. Delegates introduced each question with a personal story or anecdote that demonstrated their passion for each issue. After hearing all three questions, delegates voted on their top question for that respective issue. These questions have been forwarded to the moderators of the debates. (The Town Hall can be found on YouTube.)  The delegates would like the moderators of the debates to ask following final questions of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, and the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton:

economyEconomy & Income Inequality: How would you restructure government assistance programs for the unemployed or impoverished to obtain self-sufficiency?

fp1Foreign Policy 1:
What specific circumstances would prompt the United States to use military resources in a foreign country? How would you utilize the nation’s military resources? Foreign Policy 2: How do you plan on supporting Syrian civilians without creating future conflict with other political actors?

Social Justice/Civil Rights:
What will you do to reduce the recidivism and mass incarceration rates in communities where poverty and violence are prevalent?

immigration Immigration: What is your plan for aiding the employment of skilled refugees and immigrants in their respective fields?

educationEducation: How will you ensure quality education to areas of socioeconomic disadvantage both in terms of K-12 and access to higher education?

However, delegates have concerns beyond these five issues areas. While the format of the Town Hall was designed to ensure that delegates would identify the issues most salient for their generation, they also noted other important concerns: climate change and the environment, gender equality, gun control, and healthcare, to name a few.  While these issues were eliminated at Caucus Night before the Town Hall, delegates will continue to post videos of their personal stories about these other concerns.  They will also be relying on social media to urge Lester Holt, Elaine Quijano, Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, and Chris Wallace to use any of their questions in the debates on September 26, October, 4, 9, and 19.

Dominican University wrapped up the Town Hall and College Debate by tasking the delegates to return to their respective campuses to further engage their peers on these issues.  This initiative, the first of its kind, has given young Americans, approximately 69.2 million strong, an opportunity to be heard in this important election. The delegates used technology to discuss rather than yell, listen rather than ignore, and emphasize rather than condemn. Through civic dialogue and meaningful discourse, America’s youth has demonstrated that it is actively engaged in the 2016 National Election.

Gigi Gokcek, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Dominican University of California. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, Ph.D., Ed.D., is the Senior Advisor for Strategy & Planning at Dominican University of California.  She earned her Ph.D. in History of Art and Architecture from Brown University and Ed.D. in Higher Education Policy and Leadership from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Dominican University of California is an independent university of almost 2,000 highly diverse undergraduate and graduate students. Located in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, Dominican integrates inspiring teaching and supportive mentoring with internships, community service, research, study abroad, and leadership opportunities.