Written by Blaine Boyd of Civic Nation. Read the article below or on Forbes.com
Rochelle Fraenig, Darius Wesley, and Tenzin Choenyi had never met. Rochelle went to Brighton High School in Brighton, Michigan; Darius attended North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago, Illinois; and Tenzin grew up across the world in Nepal.
However, the three were always united in their relentless pursuit of an education—even in the face of tremendous adversity.
As fate would have it—three years ago—their paths would cross at the White House after a phone call they never expected. The Reach Higher team was on the line from Washington, DC, and they were inviting Rochelle, Darius, and Tenzin to meet with then-First Lady Michelle Obama.
“It really was incredible,” Rochelle agreed. “I felt like I was actually in a dream, and I kept thinking, ‘Who, me? Really?’”
Rochelle, Darius, and Tenzin were part of a select group invited to take part in a roundtable with Mrs. Obama and her staff. That first year, only twelve students gathered at the White House to share their stories with the First Lady. But in the years that followed, Beating the Odds (BTO) grew into a summit with 150 student participants from every state, celebrity partners joining the effort, and the President, First Lady, and Secretary of Education leading panels and workshops.
“I have never met so many intelligent young men and women who all have the same mindset and aspirations to be successful all in one place.” Darius said, “It was an amazing feeling to be around such a group.”
“When I came to this country as a Tibetan refugee in 2010, I would’ve never thought in a million years that I would be surrounded by hundreds of students who were just like me in so many different ways,” said Tenzin. “Hearing their stories gave me a sense of comfort and made me realize that I was not alone in this journey.”
“My experiences with [Beating the Odds Summits] have been incredible. I met Tyler Oakley, Jidenna, and Lana Parrilla. And I’ve been able to make many connections and friends with other BTO alums,” Rochelle said. “I’m thankful that I’ve also been able to continue to share my experiences and give advice on the student panels.”
As veterans of BTO, the trio has joined as contributors during the summits, serving as speakers on panels and in breakout sessions.
“BTO has given me the opportunities to work with organizations from all over and to be an advocate for education, to show others how important it is to get a higher education,” said Darius.
Beating the Odds not only focuses on the students’ stories—the summit also equips students with skills and a support network that will help them complete their degrees.
“During BTO, I learned that asking for help is not a sign of weakness and that relying on others can help us better reach our goal,” said Tenzin.
“I have met so many mentors and people who have invested time into helping students like me succeed, not only in college but also in life,” Darius said. “I’ve learned that you can achieve anything when you have determination and a great support system.”
The lessons of Beating the Odds stayed true for the three as they started their college careers.
“Once I got comfortable with my college workload around my sophomore year, I started to really get involved around college and started to meet new people. Today, as I look forward to my senior year of college, I am excited for the new challenges facing me,” said Tenzin.
“Life since my freshman year of college has been complicated,” Rochelle said, “but I’ve learned that the route to and through college, it isn’t just one path. And most importantly, I learned that no matter what, you must always keep fighting.”
As Rochelle, Darius, and Tenzin close in on their ultimate goal of completing their higher education, they never forget the example they set for those who follow.
“I’ve taken my Beating the Odds Summit experience to encourage others to work hard. I’ve had little kids in my community ask me if my picture with the First Lady is wax or real,” Tenzin said laughing. “Somehow, I always end that discussion around how hard work pays off in the end.”
Written by Clarissa Unger, Civic Engagement Director for Young Invincibles and a guest contributor for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Read the article below or on Forbes.com
The year was 2008, and I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas (KU). November was quickly approaching, and I was anxiously awaiting the first election I was eligible to vote in. Though I was studying political science and was very engaged on campus, when it came time to actually register and vote, I needed help. As young voters new to the process, many of my fellow students also faced challenges figuring out how to register and where to vote.
At KU, it was staff at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics—an institute on campus dedicated to promoting political and civic participation as well as civil discourse—who helped me navigate the voting process. Beyond that, they organized events with politicians, journalists, and subject-matter experts that helped me become not just a voter, but an informed voter. Their dedication to promoting civil, public discourse by always offering both sides of any issue and fostering debate taught me how to not only discuss polarizing topics with people that I did not always agree with but how to be friends with them as well. After all that I learned at the Dole Institute, when Election Day came in November, I was ready.
Colleges and universities across the country have a responsibility to graduate active and informed citizens and to foster civic learning and democratic engagement, but not every campus has the resources to do this well. Because of this, since the fall of 2015, the organization that I work for now—Young Invincibles—has convened a national coalition of over 150 nonpartisan groups to form the Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition and to help provide campuses with the resources and expertise they need to ensure that in the future, no college student will struggle—like I did—to figure out how to register and vote.
SLSV Coalition Partners understand that while voting is just one form of civic participation, it is fundamental to the success of our democratic society, and it is measurable – so we can clearly see progress. In fact, the Higher Education Act of 1998 specifically requires that colleges and universities make a “good faith effort” to distribute voter registration materials to all of their students.1
Unfortunately, a “good faith effort” just isn’t cutting it on most campuses. The National Study of Learning, Voting & Engagement (NSLVE) found that only 45 percent of students in their study, which included 783 higher education institutions, voted in 2012.2 In 2014, that number dropped to 18 percent, meaning only 18 percent of college students made their voices heard in the last midterm elections.
Colleges and universities across the country must more effectively promote voter engagement among their students. To aid in this, the SLSV Coalition created a set of guidelines to help campuses feel confident promoting voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization among their students.
First, campuses should identify someone to lead and coordinate these efforts. Too often, voter engagement efforts on a campus are uncoordinated and only reach certain communities of students on a campus (i.e. political science students or those already engaged). That’s why, after someone is chosen to lead these efforts for the full campus, we encourage them to sign up for the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) so they can see—even by area of study—where students are underperforming on their own campus. Following enrolling in NSLVE, we ask the campus lead to convene a committee of representatives from student affairs, academic affairs, student leaders, and other areas on and off-campus to coordinate campus-wide voter engagement efforts and together write an action plan that can be shared and learned from year after year.
SLSV Coalition Partners fully believe that campuses that put in this much effort to ensure their students are engaged and voting should be recognized for their efforts—which is where the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge comes in, an important partner in the SLSV Coalition. The ALL IN Challenge is a national recognition program for colleges and universities committed to increasing student voting rates that elevates the work of campuses with large percentages of their students voting. Over 260 campuses across the country are now participating in the Challenge and I am very proud to say that my alma mater, KU, is one of them!
Colleges and universities can and should educate students as active citizens. But that means doing more than giving a “good faith effort” and really ensuring all of the students on campus have the tools and resources they need to fully participate in our democracy. A great first step is connecting with the SLSV Coalition—or one of our Coalition Partners—and signing up for the ALL IN Challenge. It’s time for every college and university in our country to move from “good faith” to #allin4democracy.
1 1998. Higher Education Amendments of 1998. 105th Congress.
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Written by Thomas MacMillan of New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer. Read the article below or on nymag.com
Compared to other major democracies, Americans vote in appallingly low numbers. It’s so bad, in fact, that pollsters were pleasantly surprised last month when a measly 13 percent of New Jersey’s registered voters showed up to vote in the gubernatorial primary, up from 9 percent in 2013.
Presidential election years bring out more voters, of course, but even the 2016 national election — featuring a reality TV star and the first woman to win a major-party nomination — drew only slightly more than half of voting-age Americans to the polls. That figure places the United States well below most other major developed democracies, somewhere between Estonia and Slovenia.
But it wasn’t always this way. According to get-out-the-vote guru Donald Green, voting records show that American elections in the mid-19th century drew as many as 80 percent of eligible voters to the polls, a rate comparable to the countries that now boast the highest turnout — places like Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark.
So what changed? Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, thinks part of the problem is that voting isn’t as fun as it once was. It used to be a raucous, festive attraction, with polling places set up in saloons where voters (white men only, at that point) would spend the day carousing and casting their ballots. Over time, thanks to reforms aimed at making voting a more dispassionate affair, elections became more and more staid, to the point where the biggest excitement is a bake sale and voting often feels more like a trip to the DMV than a July Fourth barbecue.
While no one wants to go back to those days, research conducted by Green has found that organizing community festivals — with everyone invited for things like live music, sno-cones, and hot dogs — near polling sites can create a significant increase in voter turnout, often for less money than direct mail or door-to-door canvassing.
“If I had to bet on one thing that pretty much any organized group could do, it would be this,” Green said. “Right now, the evidence is pretty overwhelming.”
Green’s current research builds on studies he conducted in 2005 and 2006, when he looked at the effect of festivals at 14 polling places in 13 cities across the country, from Green Bay to Tallahassee. He compared festival sites with regular polling places and found that festivals increased turnout by an average of 2.6 percentage points, a relatively big jump in this context.
In 2016, Green carried out his experiments again, teaming up with Civic Nation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works on encouraging civic engagement. Funded by the Knight Foundation, Civic Nation worked with local partners — who also pitched in resources — to organize festivals at nine sites in 2016. Each was advertised beforehand and geared toward local interests — things like Mexican food, pizza, photo booths, and cornhole – at a cost of between $700 and $3,000.
Green found that the 2016 festivals boosted voter turnout by about 4 percentage points, an even bigger jump. “These effects are kind of eye-popping,” Green said. “Especially when you think of how low the cost per vote was.” Green said he calculated it to between $30 and $40 per extra vote. “That’s pretty darn cheap, because even the most efficient tactics are in that range and it’s certainly better than a lot of common tactics like direct mail or robo-calls.”
The festivals so far have been strictly nonpartisan, aimed at turning out more voters regardless of party affiliation. It’s unlikely the technique could be successfully weaponized as a partisan activity, since it’s hard to prevent a festival from drawing your opponent’s voters to the polls along with your own, said Melissa Michelson, a Menlo College political science professor who studies voting behavior.
And even though Democrats tend, in general, to benefit from higher turnout, polling festivals are still probably not targeted enough to make them a popular technique for Democratic campaign consultants, she said.
Michelson said another obstacle to the spread of election festivals is that efforts to increase voter turnout — and our culture in general — are headed in the opposite direction, toward the digital and impersonal. Election reformers are looking at things like early voting, no-excuse-needed absentee voting, and internet voting. “That’s where the trend is,” she said. “We’re probably going to see a shift toward less personal voting and less community spirit.”
Civic Nation is hoping to buck that trend, by working with Green this year to study polling festivals in about 40 sites and then encouraging people to throw their own parties at elections next year, during the midterm elections in 2018.
Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham political science professor who studies voting, said other techniques like postcards thanking people who vote, or even shaming those who don’t, show more promise than polling festivals. He said he doesn’t expect to see festivals take hold nationwide anytime soon, given how much local organization is required, compared to a mass mailing.
“It’s certainly the case that there are other, more scalable ways of generating votes,” Green said. But, he said, while postcards might become less effective over time, polling-place festivals have the potential to create a real cultural shift, establishing a tradition of Election Day fun that might build on itself year after year. Green noted that this kind of festive voting tradition already exists in Puerto Rico, and voting rates there have historically exceeded 80 percent.
“The way I can imagine this happening is for some communities, some towns or larger areas, embracing this as a thing they do routinely. And you have school marching bands play and you have all the accoutrements of a community activity that draws a broad spectrum of people,” Green said. Voting has gotten dull, he said, “but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
To learn more about what Civic Nation is doing to help encourage communities to #VoteTogether, visit Civicnation.org
Nick Cannon is a guest contributor for Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative. Read the article below or on Forbes.com.
Every once in a while, you hear about a celebrity or pro athlete who goes back to school to complete their college degree. Shaq. Bo Jackson. Michael Jordan. They already have fame, they’ve made money, and they’re living far, far beyond their wildest childhood dreams.
So, why? Why go back?
I never fully understood—until it was me. I’ve achieved some fame. I’ve made some money. I’ve accomplished goals I never even imagined as a child. And yet, I’m up late at night reading and writing; I get on a plane every week or so to attend classes at Howard University, and I’m forcing myself to squeeze out the time and summon the energy I need to complete my college education. Do you know why I do it?
To reach higher.
I applaud and commend all of the young people I had the opportunity to spend time with at Michelle Obama’s College Signing Day event for graduating seniors. I found it to be remarkable how influencers from various fields came together to celebrate not only these young people’s accomplishments but to encourage them on their future.
I was honored when our former First Lady, or as I like to refer to her, my “Forever First Lady,” invited me to participate. It was such a powerful event and selfless occasion. It truly showed how much she continues to care for our youth and the importance of education in our great country.
It’s up to all of us, especially our youth, not to do more but to do better.
I make a great living, but I want to be a great businessman. I know the history of entertainment, but I want to write the future of entertainment. I’m pleased with my career so far, but I’m not satisfied. Never satisfied.
That’s why I have to always reach higher.
That day and that event taught me that our young people have a vision for their future, and I cannot rest until I bring that vision to life. That’s why Reach Higher’s College Signing Day inspired me to work even harder to get my college degree. I can’t think of a more rewarding experience I’ve had than being in a room filled with young people who feel the same way—happy, but not satisfied.
I’m grateful to Michelle Obama for creating the Reach Higher initiative and inviting me to participate. I’m thankful she is traveling the world to spread the simple message that young people have to aspire to more than a high school diploma in our modern economy. We have to reach higher. Do more. Be better. To become our best selves.
I have a message to the worldwide participants of the Reach Higher movement: see you at the top!
Today, Dr. Martha Kanter and Angela Cammack from the College Promise Campaign met with a group of higher education leaders from Mississippi and Alabama. The even, hosted by the University of Alabama, was a chance to discuss how to make college more affordable for students. The College Promise Campaign is dedicated to working all across the country to promote the expansion of free community college. To find out if there is a promise program near you, visit our website.
Today the United State of Women announced a new training program for young women called the Galvanize Program. Below is the letter from Valerie Jarrett announcing the program:
The Civic Nation Creative Alliance hosted it’s bi-annual meeting on Friday. Now 55 companies strong, the Creative Alliance is a growing force for change. The purpose is to encourage Americans to know, care about and act on our nation’s challenges. It develops world-class strategies and kick-ass creative campaigns designed to rally people to action around Civic Nation’s causes. The alliance includes strategists, ad agencies, designers, producers, digital, innovators, PR agencies, platforms, artists, influencers and brands. To learn more about the Creative Alliance, email Director Zeppa Kreager at [email protected]
On Friday, May 5, Better Make Room and Reach Higher hosted Michelle Obama’s annual College Signing Day event. College Signing Day is national movement where schools and communities across the country shine a spotlight on students and make them the stars of the show. On this day, students share their plans for the future, rock their new college apparel, and are celebrated by everyone for their decision to pursue a higher education. It’s a day where we uplift and support our nation’s young people as they take control of their future and make the commitment to attend—and most importantly graduate—from a postsecondary institution. Mrs. Obama always says, “just getting into college isn’t the ultimate goal. You have got to stay focused once you get there, and you’ve got to get that degree or that certificate.”
For the 2017 event, dozens of celebrities including Nick Cannon, Questlove, Bella Hadid and more joined Mrs. Obama in New York.