Schools Can Help Prepare Young People to Vote Before they Turn 18
By Azima Aidarov
As the daughter of immigrants from a small country in Central Asia called Kyrgyzstan, I had absolutely no previous connections to U.S. politics. Every experience that I sought out came purely from my own desire to become engaged in a world that was completely unknown to me, yet filled with intriguing complexities that I was exuberant to learn more about.
What sparked my interest in politics was the growing awareness of social issues that were prevalent in my life and made themselves more apparent as I got older. Growing up, I attended a school in which there was a lack of opportunities that didn’t allow me to fulfill my potential. When my family’s socioeconomic situation improved, I moved to a new school district during seventh grade. I was in awe at how different everything was — students had access to a variety of healthy lunch options, after school support, and diverse clubs catered to every interest. As much as I was elated about the possibilities that had opened up for me, I would often think about the kids in my old school, and the more I reflected on the injustice that not every child is able to obtain a good education, the more my passion for politics grew.
It was during this point in my life that I became aware of the importance of the role that schools play in sparking the necessary curiosity in youth that may propel them in their quests for social justice. Schools have an obligation to go beyond the bare minimum of teaching students facts about U.S. history and government. They also need to encourage students to become involved in the political processes that affect them directly, whether it be through teaching them how to start a new club or informing them of civic opportunities within their communities. In order to incentivize students to pursue these avenues, schools can spend more time in their curriculums focusing on relevant issues that directly affect youth. The role of schools is key to fulfilling the promise of the 26th amendment because it can help create a mobilized youth that understands the power of its vote and its place in politics.
When it comes to youth engagement, the first step towards becoming engaged is obtaining a solid understanding of how the government makes policies and how citizen participation in different types of elections can help shape these policies. Typically, young people could obtain knowledge about policymaking and participating in elections through history and government courses. These courses are extremely valuable — they play a large role in introducing key political ideas that are crucial for students to know about. Upon completion of these courses, however, there likely will be gaps in their understanding because these courses tend to be insufficient, seeing as they have to avoid seeming “partisan” at all times. To fill these gaps, students can turn to a teacher or other mentor to inquire about how to best use online resources to research the different nuances of elections. Furthermore, finding specific issues that they care about and researching different candidates and their stances on these issues, can help clarify which political party they most align with.
Schools can also allow students to take on research projects in which they can individually explore topics that mean a lot to them. In my high school, this was called “Project CivicsWorks,” through which I chose to research educational inequalities in Illinois. Doing research on a topic that hit so close to home allowed me to discover a lot of fascinating information that increased my awareness of policies that perpetuate these inequalities.
This deeper learning can make young people want to take their involvement a step further. To go beyond classroom engagement, students can pursue active involvement in a school club that centers around politics or social justice. This way, they will be able to build a sense of community because they will be surrounded by peers who share the same interests as them. This may help increase their sense of belonging and purpose, because becoming involved outside of school is a crucial part of developing one’s convictions and can make a young person feel that they are part of something greater than themselves. As part of the Political Action Club at my high school, I got to moderate forums for Congressional candidates, travel to Iowa and meet presidential candidates during the 2020 caucus alongside a small group of fellow students, and engage in lively discussions about current events with our club sponsor. The club opened up a whole new world for me that made me even more eager to learn more about what can be done to create the changes so many young people envision for our country.
Both my classroom and extracurricular experiences generated momentum for me that made me passionate about pursuing political work on my own. The summer after my junior year of high school, I began working with a local grassroots organization to help elect candidates from the political party that I came to realize aligns most with my values. I phone banked, canvassed, and wrote postcards to voters to encourage them to go out and vote. I even spoke with local elected officials and candidates, learning about their perspectives on hot-button issues during the summer of 2020 such as racial unrest and COVID-19 policies. I was able to see just how much time and effort goes into doing outreach and ensuring that each part of the process runs smoothly — something that is certainly no easy feat, especially during a time of political turmoil. The work that I witnessed the leaders of this organization doing was truly inspiring and volunteering alongside my peers made me realize that everyone, regardless of age, has something of value to offer and is capable of affecting change within their community.
My high school experiences demonstrate how more exposure to civics in school helps create high levels of engagement among students; they also show the importance of schools aiding in the process of maturation as students become more aware of issues around them. When young people see how politics impacts them, this can catalyze their political engagement and alter the course of their lives in a worthwhile manner—but it is important to recognize that youth need substantial support in order for this to happen. With the help of politicians, who need to recognize the power of young people, opportunities can be given to youth to explore their political pursuits not just in schools that are well-funded, but in schools all across the nation. This can be done through policies that will make more schools equipped to foster substantial growth in their students. In turn, youth of all backgrounds, whose voices are arguably one of the most valuable in politics, will be more confident to take on elections and mobilize their communities to truly make the differences that they deserve to see.
Azima Aidarov is a freshman at Boston University. She is majoring in international relations and is a staff writer for the International Relations Review, BU’s premier undergraduate academic journal. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in politics.