By MANI THANGADURAI
Being a liberal arts college, UT has over the years been comparatively quiet in terms of political activity with most of its students shying away from political discourse or opinion. This normally changes during the course of a national election given its immediate impact on the country and its fortunes in the minds of the people.
The recent presidential election and its aftermath have certainly stoked a great deal of fire among the students here at UT, especially since most of the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump which has since translated to White House policy has had a more pronounced impact on many students and their families. Political groups which were hitherto quiet got into the groove in the run-up to the election, but it was the result and the aftermath that has seen a spike in activity.
UT has three main political groups on campus – the College Democrats, the College Republicans and the College Libertarians. Each group provides an opportunity for students who share similar ideas to congregate and discuss those issues further while also organizing many activities with the aim of making students more politically aware. Having only re-joined this university in January of 2017, after the election, I wasn’t quite aware of any activities that were organized in the run-up. However, activities from both the Democrats and the Republicans have markedly increased since the election, and this has coincided with a stark realization from students of the impact of their voting or abstinence from voting. Given the shock nature of the loss and the subsequent controversial policies of the new administration, the Democrats have seen an increase in membership from disgruntled students who were unable to fathom Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and his outlandish ideas for “Making America Great Again.”
On Jan. 31 this year, in response to the controversial Travel Ban which saw quite a few students from UT affected, Casey Bauer, then interim Vice President of the College Democrats, organized a protest at the junction of Kennedy Boulevard and North Boulevard, at the Southwest corner of the campus. The protest was conducted on the same day as another protest at the University of South Florida, and received a great response with many students and a few staff members willingly joining in. Ever since then, College Democrats have been the organization which has seen arguably the highest increase in membership, and through this jump has had the ability to reestablish itself on campus.
I was a part of that protest, and after getting to know more about the Democrats I told myself that I would be very eager to join that group as a means of keeping myself politically aware while also adding my views on the situation. Despite not being a citizen of this country, I love living and studying here and it’s people like myself who stand to be very adversely affected by the policies of Trump’s administration. This will be particularly apparent when I graduate from UT and will be on the hunt for a job. Since joining the Democrats I have been attending meetings on a regular basis while also participating in several events, and it was a desire to continue being well-informed and active which led me to run for a position on the Executive Board for the year 2017-18. I am now proudly serving as Treasurer, under Bauer’s Presidency.
The College Democrats in particular have been very keen on more inter-party activities with the other groups, and it was last semester that Bauer took part in a panel on free speech organized by the United Nations Student Alliance at UT along with a representative from the College Republicans. Sadly this semester such cross-party activities have not been forthcoming, but there is hope for that to change in the Spring and subsequent semesters. And to that note, while the Libertarian group used to be very active on campus to the point of bringing in a few speakers and political candidates, it has become quite dormant now of late.
In saying that, the College Democrats have been active during the last ten months since the election, organizing voter registration drives in order to get more citizens to register and vote while also attending an event to mark the 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood, and the annual Convention for the Florida College Democrats, held at USF in April 2017.
The Dems have also organized protests outside Senator Marco Rubio’s office in downtown Tampa and taken part in an awareness initiative against human trafficking, and a number of members including myself had the honor of attending the annual Kennedy-King awards dinner in September 2017 where gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham was the keynote speaker.
Of course, as an international student who is ineligible to vote in this country I have had to shy away from the protests at Senator Rubio’s office and not take part in the registration drives in order to avoid putting my visa status at risk, but being involved at a collegiate level has enabled me to find my voice, and I am happy to use it to try and galvanize people in a way.
In addition, having had the pleasure of meeting other gubernatorial candidates during the FCD Convention, the Democrats have been very eager to invite them to speak at UT. Andrew Gillum, Mayor of the State Capitol Tallahassee, was eager to come to UT as a part of his ‘Back to School’ tour but sadly Hurricane Irma put paid to his plans at the time. He did eventually come to UT to speak in September 2017 and spoke on a myriad of issues ranging from jobs to race relations. While the attendance could have been better, it was a huge effort to bring Gillum to UT and those students who attended, including myself, were left impressed with his articulation, passion, and plans for the state of Florida. The Democrats are now very eager to bring in more speakers and political candidates, including fellow gubernatorial candidates Gwen Graham and Chris King, in an attempt to better inform student voters of the choices ahead of them in the run-up to the elections in late 2018.
What is apparent is that with this November marking the first anniversary of Trump being elected president, students as a whole are now well aware of the importance of being more politically aware and the consequences of not exercising their right to vote. Especially with Trump’s policies having the potential to adversely affect many students and other members of the youth brigade, students and other millennials are now making it a point to know more about the issues facing them and what they must do in order to withstand them.
With the increase in activity will invariably come an increase in dialogue between different groups in order to ascertain an opposing point of view, and it is my hope that in the coming days and months UT’s political groups will take a greater initiative in informing more students and encouraging them to be more politically aware and active. This is especially important now more than ever, since many people might now end up living either happily or in difficulty through one highly contentious and divisive election from which the country still hasn’t quite recovered.
Mani Thangadurai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org