By Mary Sorenson, Doctoral Candidate and Instructor, University of Missouri, Columbia
(and Illinois State University School of Communications M.A 2013 alumna)
On Tuesday night, over 800 students, faculty, and community members gathered in the Brown Ballroom at Illinois State University (ISU) to watch President Obama deliver his final State of the Union (SOTU) address. However, the night was about much more than providing a space for a watch-party. As I sat at my table with four laptops, ready to tweet away the night, I watched an incredible event unfold. I watched as students shuffled their feet quickly to locate their friends that were also in attendance and listened as they asked what they thought was the most important question of the night, “when will the pizza be here?” They came for the pizza…for their friends…for an opportunity to take selfies or go on a scavenger hunt in order to get extra credit. But as time went on, I watched as students started to engage in their political world.
I watched as students figured out where they could register to vote and how they could download the new icitizen app on their phones. I watched students take a seat at a table and settle in for the long-haul, suddenly less concerned about when and where the pizza line would start. I watched as more and more names started to pop up in the Tweet-up…because they had found a space where their voice could be heard. I watched students walk up the Social Media Analytics Command Center (SMACC) and start looking at data…and I watched them engage with panelists as the live broadcast wrapped up and President Obama demanded our attention with this poised and confident presence.
Then it happened- I watched the tone of the room shift as students heard the words they might not have even known that they needed: “So let’s talk about our future, and four big questions that we as a country have to answer- regardless of who the next President is or who controls the next Congress.” The future was what President Obama wanted to talk about in his final address. Their futures. Their futures as students, members of a community, tax payers, employers or employees, parents, and even their future as meaningful members of our political world. The tweet-up exploded in this moment as everyone started sharing how we can improve the future of our union. Dr. Leah Murray of Weber State University tweeted, “Fixing politics starts with college students watching SOTU together. #iSOTU16 #SOTUweber.” AASCU’s ADP and Heartland Community College chimed in with tweets about our future of innovative and creative thinking. Students used their mediated voices to tweet about what they want their future to look like and how their goals can be achieved.
It was incredible to watch a conversation happen at such a speed that I could barely keep up. The #iSOTU16 hashtag provided a platform for students across the country to share their opinions and expand their political sphere through retweets, likes, and replies. During the post-SOTU broadcast Alex Schreiner, the partnerships and outreach manager for icitizen, addressed the importance of using technology to engage young people in politics. Even in his address, President Obama focused one of his questions how we can, “make technology work for us, and not against us.” It was evident throughout the night that our technological platforms (Twitter and icitizen) were spaces in which students felt comfortable and empowered. It was through this event that they were able to expand their political community beyond ISU and engage with a national audience that shares their values and experiences.
As leaders and educators we need to make sure we engage our students in ways that pull them out of their comfort zones while keeping them comfortable. We need to provide them with spaces where they can have a political voice and see how their words can ignite change. We need to make politics an accessible reality instead of allowing our students to view politics as scary, pointless, or not their “thing.” It is our responsibility to give them more than pizza- we need to give them a voice.
On Tuesday night at ISU, our students got their pizza…but they left with much more than full stomachs. They left with hopeful attitudes about a political future that they get to be a part of. They left with a new understanding of what politics can look like- an understanding that came from much more than the words of our President. As they left the ballroom that night, they knew that the future of the union requires change…and requires them to be part of it.