Dominican University Hosts First College Debate 2016: Engaging America’s Youth


By Gigi Gokcek, PhD and Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, PhD, EdD

Young Americans are politically active, but not at the voting booth. According to a 2015 report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, a mere 19.9 percent of 18-to 29-year-olds voted in 2014 compared to 26.6 percent in prior midterm elections. In the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, 41 percent of 18-24 year-olds voted, accounting for only 15.4 percent of the total votes cast. Yet this segment of the electorate is 75 million members strong, making them the largest potential voting bloc in the 2016 presidential election.

America’s youth care about jobs and economic growth, climate change, health care, and student debt, among many other issues. They volunteer in their communities more than any prior generation. They donate time and money to large and small organizations around the world. They have attended the 2016 rallies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both in opposition and support. Indeed, they are civically engaged across a spectrum of activities except one: voting.

When young people believe their voices are heard, they will become engaged citizens, who participate in the political process and actually turnout out to vote on election day.”

This fall, Dominican University of California is hosting the first ever College Debate 2016, a forum to engage young Americans in the electoral process so that they will be inspired to vote. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the nonpartisan organization that produces debates for the presidential and vice presidential candidates – designated Dominican as a Voter Education Partner. Dominican, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, will host on its Northern California campus college students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to serve as delegates representing their respective institutions and the state where their schools are located.

Delegates will be announced in April, and soon after, they will turn to social media to identify the issues that matter most to their generation. Using #CollegeDebate16 as an identifying tag on social media platforms, delegates will begin to engage each other and their networks. Online meet-ups, webinars, and other technology-mediated tools will develop the delegate cohort.

On June 2-3, 2016, the delegates will convene on the Dominican campus to participate in sessions focused on civil discourse, digital citizenry, and social media activism. The delegates will begin to plan and organize events and activities on their campuses using social media to catalyze discussions among young voters about the issues that are salient for American youth.

Throughout the summer, delegates will continue the conversation via social media with special attention to events such as the final primaries, the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions in July. Throughout this initiative, the emphasis is on issues rather than partisan politics using the multiplier effect of peer-to-peer contact via social media to  engage, inform, and influence the youth vote.

On September 9-10, the delegates will return to the Dominican campus for the 2016 College Convention. The culminating event – a moderated Town Hall – will be live streamed to delegates’ colleges and universities, which will host viewing parties on each of their campuses.

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At this national convention, students will identify key issues for the presidential candidates to address during the debates. These issues will be shared with the moderators of the presidential debates to take place at Wright State University (OH), Longwood University (VA), Washington University in St. Louis (MO), and University of Nevada in Las Vegas (NV).

In preparation, Dominican is collaborating with partners in higher education and technology. These partners include the Association of American Colleges & Universities, The American Democracy Project, The Bonner Foundation, Bringing Theory to Practice, Campus Compact, Generation Citizen, Imagining America, The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, Ignite, NASPA, Project Pericles, TurboVote and The Washington Center. On the technology side, partners include Brigade, Voispot, and the Social Media Analytics and Command Center (SMACC) at Illinois State University. These collaborators are working with Dominican to expand the delegates’ networks, facilitate communication across delegates, produce issues-based content, as well as collect, analyze, and distribute data outlining the issues trending with younger voters.

The College Debate 2016 is intended to provide a forum for young people to talk about the issues, to think about policies, to become informed, to learn from their peers – activities that we hope will increase voting in the 2016 presidential election. When young people believe their voices are heard, they will become engaged citizens, who participate in the political process and actually turnout out to vote on election day.

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 EdD 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.