Political Fervor at Traditionally Apathetic USC

USC Students

By Bernadette Anat

By Bernadette Anat
Unigo Campus Rep at USC

It's a first for the school formally labeled “politically apathetic” by many on-campus groups: USC is abuzz with political chatter. Campaign posters seem bolder both in style and message, opinions are louder, and more conversations are about current events than Juicy Campus gossip. While the students and faculty find that political activity remains mostly on campus, an awakening has begun at USC – Trojans are talking about the nation's biggest issues more than ever before.

“I think this is the most engaged our campus has become,” said Professor Thomas Hollihan, a university-recognized political expert who has taught at USC for over 28 years. “Upwards of 300 people show up for political events on campus – kids are yelling and screaming for their favorite candidates.”

Hollihan and other faculty are noticing an unprecedented increase in political participation and a renewed desire for information amongst the students. This generation of Trojans is seeking the truth and speaking up.
But what are the students at USC talking about? Things that are affecting them directly, said Hollihan.
“USC students, like most Americans, are anxious about the economy – they understand that, if the economy collapses, it makes job searches and borrowing money for tuition loans more difficult,” he said. Hollihan also credits this new political stir to progress in the Iraq war, and notes that USC students, “Are becoming more understanding of the importance of the environment.”

To affect change in these particular issues, undergrads at USC are focusing on their newest and most direct political weapon: their vote. Several student-run groups are helping their peers navigate the details of this year's election.

For USC's Students for John McCain, it's all about rallying troops. “We're focused on energizing students on campus, and then transferring that energy to help the campaign,” said Joshua Sharp, senior at USC and co-chairman for the group. Sharp said his group's main concern is voter registration – they mobilize Republican supporters through tabling on campus, precinct walks, even coordinating phone bank time with the local McCain campaign headquarters.

Sharp notes that USC students for McCain are more subtle in their campaigning style. “I think the difference is that Democrat students tend to show up and demonstrate more, whereas conservative students are passionate but don't show it in the same way,” said Sharp, who recently led a bus-load of supporters to a local rally for Senator Sarah Palin. “McCain supporters at USC express their passion through their vote and in conversations with like-minded students.”
However, Bret VandenBos, president of USC's Students for Barack Obama, said his group's main objective is very similar to that of Sharp's: gathering lists of supporters. “For people in our age bracket, lists like this don't exist because we've never voted in an election before,” said VandenBos, a junior at USC. To round up young voters at USC, Students for Obama embark on “Dorm Storms”, where volunteers literally storm on-campus housing, voter registration forms in hand, and go door-to-door asking students to register.

The two groups work in tandem for many
 efforts, including debate watch parties and weekly policy lunches. These hour-long lunches, co-sponsored by USC's Unruh Institute of Politics and the school newspaper, the Daily Trojan, bring in reps from both groups and create a forum where all students can join a conversation based on the issue of that week. Students and local media fill classrooms to talk about issues such as the economy, environment, and health care.

But political activism seems to be centralized within USC itself; a “campus-based sense of activism,” said VandenBos. “Students at USC are very passionate about what they believe in – they just want to do that work at USC; they want to affect change within their community. “But we're doing what we can to capitalize off of that.”

Regardless of style or means, USC students are undoubtedly more politically involved than years past. Today's Trojans are in the midst of an incredibly stimulating political environment, and students are definitely responding to the action in this year's history-making election.

“It's an election of firsts: first African American candidate, first female on the vice presidential ticket and our current president is not profoundly popular,” reflected Professor Hollihan. “Students have become more interested and more engaged, and here at USC, that kind of adversity feeds on itself.”