Voting: A Collegiate Sister's Perspective By Sara Peck (Beta-Northwestern)
There's a definite popular idealism about both youth and Washington, D.C., both of which collided this summer somewhere between 106 degree heat and my first non-food service job. I was determined to make my contribution to political journalism, notebook in hand and impractical shoes blazing. Even I, the proudly snarky cynic was so excited to live in the Capitol the summer before an election year.
I'll admit, at first, I was disappointed. Foolish were my visions of flag-clad protestors trying to burn down Capitol Hill as I interviewed them. My first stories were briefs composed mostly of phone interviews and Internet research.
Adjusting to life in Washington, as in any other city, was defined by semantics more than the grand life-defining moments of summer blockbusters. I had to find the grocery store, navigate the subway, and toe the line between business casual and beach formal (my verdict: pearls make everything office-appropriate). On paper, I should have been ecstatic. I was voting in my first election in the first race where a woman, a former intern in D.C., was a serious contender for the Democratic nomination and in which, for the first time in history, a woman is the Republican nominee for vice president. The election was less than six months away. Politicians and other amazing interns were flooding into the city just as I arrived.
It wasn't so much the place that made my summer, it was the people.
Of the 334 program participants, 228 were female. They were some of the most talented, genuine and driven women that I had met. Sure, the first day we all looked pretty ridiculous wandering around the metro station in ill-fitting suits looking like kids wearing our parents' clothes, but soon enough we blended into the crowd.
There's been much said about apathy and disinterest college students harbor about politics and current events in general. I don't really believe this. And they weren't, as political pessimists say, overly privileged private school kids. They came from private and public schools in many different countries with so many amazing experiences. One 25-year-old woman had a young child at home who she left to intern at a radio station. She obviously had other obligations, but chose to come to D.C. and get involved in politics.
Even if these amazing students are anomalies, election statistics are also promising. In the 2000 presidential election, 18 million 18-30 year olds voted, about 17 percent of the overall turnout. This number increased to more than 21 million in 2004, accounting for 19 percent of the voter turnout increase from 2000-04. College students, the younger half of this demographic, certainly have the capacity to influence the election.
D.C. was a wonderful experience, but for none of the reasons that I had thought. I was sure that I'd uncover horrible injustices in politics and then resolve to change the world. What I found was a sense of optimism knowing that there is a diversity of young people who honestly care about changing our country.
I've learned things will never look just like you expect. Politics are something I'll always be passionate about, but now more realistically so. Washington isn't full of the campy patriotism of some history textbooks, but it also isn't a cold world of deception and elitism. Like life, it's easy to get caught up in the tiny boredoms if you romanticize reality.
But somehow, this seemingly mundane mass of papers and scheduling lends some greater meaning. Life isn't some aggregate of metro cards, e-mails and the titles on business cards, and neither was my summer. Sometimes I'd let down my guard of cynicism and notice how pretty Georgetown townhouses were—red, blue, yellow almost haphazardly stacked along cobblestone streets. Sometimes I'd listen to snippets of conversation on my walk from work to the subway and realize that the two women next to me were more interested in bills than Manolo Blahniks.
I might just swallow my cynicism this November and admit that voting does mean a lot to me. Sure, I'm just filling out one piece of paper among millions, but it's still something a woman can get excited about.
Sara Peck is a sophomore at Northwestern University. She spent her summer interning as a reporter for the National Defense Magazine in Washington, D.C., and participated in the Institute on Political Journalism. Besides serving as the alumnae relations director for her chapter, she is a varsity fencer, writes for The Daily Northwestern and volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. She also freelances some of her work and hopes to someday become an investigative reporter at a major newspaper.