College students find the place to really get involved in politics

  • The University of Iowa campus looks calm under blankets of snow, but activist students, some from the Chicago suburbs, aim to make it a center of political life.

      The University of Iowa campus looks calm under blankets of snow, but activist students, some from the Chicago suburbs, aim to make it a center of political life. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Shana Kohn, a University of Iowa senior and McHenry East High School graduate, places calls for support at the Rudy Giuliani field office in Iowa City. Kohn, who works 20 to 30 hours a week on Giuliani's campaign, says the pull of politics is strong.

      Shana Kohn, a University of Iowa senior and McHenry East High School graduate, places calls for support at the Rudy Giuliani field office in Iowa City. Kohn, who works 20 to 30 hours a week on Giuliani's campaign, says the pull of politics is strong. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
By David Beery
Daily Herald Staff
Updated 12/20/2007 6:27 AM

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Finals week at the University of Iowa and Drake University makes sleep deprivation and stress as ubiquitous as the North Face jackets that bundle students against the bitter December cold.

But at both schools, separated by 114 miles of Interstate 80, a few students from Chicago's suburbs have more on their minds than marking the correct bubbles on the next Scantron form.

 

With Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential preference test coming up on Jan. 3, politically involved suburban students are calling prospective voters, distributing campaign literature, planning campus events and urging other out-of-state friends to return to Iowa to participate in the caucuses.

That's a tougher sell than it might seem.

Iowa's same-day registration and generous residency requirements make it easy for suburban students to caucus here instead of voting in the Feb. 5 Illinois primary. State election laws do not allow voting in both states and some politically aware students prefer the caucus because of Iowa's national influence. But caucus and university schedules conflict. Neither University of Iowa nor Drake classes resume until Jan. 22. So, returning to Iowa from out of state for a one-evening event is a big commitment.

But commitment is what drives these suburban students, who defy the stereotype of politically apathetic young adults. Not that the image is baseless. Nationwide, 64 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election, according to the Census Bureau, but among those age 18 to 24, the turnout was only 47 percent.

Nicole Dziuban, a St. Charles North graduate co-chairing Students for Hillary at the University of Iowa, wants to change that.

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But commitment is what drives these suburban students, who defy the stereotype of politically apathetic young adults. Not that the image is baseless. Nationwide, 64 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election, according to the Census Bureau, but among those age 18 to 24, the turnout was only 47 percent.

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Nicole Dziuban, a St. Charles North graduate co-chairing Students for Hillary at the University of Iowa, wants to change that.

"My main goal," she said, "is no matter what a person's views are, I just try to get them involved, because that's how things change."

During a break from his off-campus job, Dan Cunny, a University of Iowa senior from Carpentersville, agreed that many of his peers fail to understand their untapped potential.

"I don't think it's so much apathy as it is that people don't think they can do anything," said Cunny, who heads up the campus campaign for Bill Richardson. "People don't realize how powerful their vote is. And it might not always be that powerful, but at least it's something. It's a freedom. What's the point of having a freedom if you never use it?"

That's hardly an issue for students, here and at Drake, who are investing time and energy that far exceeds the effort to vote.

Shana Kohn, a University of Iowa senior and McHenry East High School graduate, works 20 to 30 hours a week on Rudy Giuliani's campaign out of a storefront office here. Jimmy Centers, a junior from Peoria and a Giuliani volunteer, can't count the hours he logs at the office, which features décor ranging from the candidate in Superman attire to a poster from the movie "Rudy." But Centers doesn't care, he said, because attending school in Iowa has afforded him opportunities he had never imagined.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"When I was growing up in Illinois, I never saw a presidential candidate come through," Centers said. "Here, on about any given day, you can go see or hear one of them."

Cunny, for one, thinks Iowans deserve their special status.

"Something like 40 percent of caucus-goers are still undecided," he said, "and it's because they take it extremely seriously and want to make the right decision. That's not something that I think happens in McHenry County; there, I think that people see that someone's a Republican and they vote for him."

Here, students say they arrived at their activism by varying routes. Dziuban, who plans to go to law school, "hated" her high school politics course but in college has found her work on Clinton's behalf to be a perfect outlet for involvement. Hillary Dover, a Grayslake High School graduate who will complete her University of Iowa degree next spring, found her political identity as a Republican after Sept. 11. She now campaigns for John McCain.

Just as their paths to political awareness have varied, so, too, do their reasons for choosing their candidates. Cunny said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's broad resume best prepares him for the presidency. Cunny contrasts conditions in New Mexico with those in Illinois, where, he said, "state government is pretty much a train wreck."

Nate Koppel, a Drake senior and Naperville North graduate, said he feels a special affinity for Barack Obama as an Illinoisan. Dziuban, listening to a Hillary Clinton speech online, realized that the senator's views matched her own virtually point-by-point.

Students differ, too, in their approach to obtaining political information. Cunny prefers newspapers. Centers cites Web sites such as Real Clear Politics and Politico. He said YouTube has altered the dynamic of this year's election by such means as the YouTube/CNN debates and by making candidates' ads available to all, not just those who live in hotly contested states.

"And then," Centers said, "there's always your Joe Smith, who sets up his Webcam and lectures on why he supports or doesn't support a candidate."

When it comes to talking issues, students agree that they have at least some common ground with their parents.

"Take the economy," Centers said. "We want to graduate into great jobs, and baby boomers want the economy to continue to flourish."

Speaking of great jobs, might the future hold a career in politics for some of these students? Dziuban plans to become an attorney with the FBI. Cunny is interested in foreign service. Dover wants to pursue a Ph.D. in history. Koppel envisions work for a nonprofit agency or the government.

Kohn doesn't expect to seek office but said the pull of political work is strong. She said she hopes, in fact, to land a paid job with the Giuliani campaign after the early primaries.

"Once you get your feet wet in politics, it's kind of something you want to stick with," Kohn said. "The pace is exciting, the work is exciting, and the people are fun."

But in the short term, all of these students have more pressing concerns. Most will drive back from the suburbs to caucus on Jan. 3. Dziuban has persuaded one friend to accompany her. Kohn has been sharpening her recruitment strategy.

"We tell people, 'Stay here for New Year's. It'll be fun, and then just hang out afterward and caucus.' People who live in dorms will have to find places to stay and we're working on that. But people who are pretty committed will be here 'cause they know how detrimental it'll be if they're not."

Politically active

Students from throughout the Chicago suburbs attend colleges and universities in Iowa and many are taking active roles in the state's hot political campaigns. Here are some examples:

Jimmy Centers, 20

University of Iowa junior

Hometown: Peoria

Major: Political science

Supporting: Rudy Giuliani

Quote: "I never intended to campaign, but once you get here and you understand the dynamics of it and find a candidate you identify with and feel passionately about, it's interesting how things fall into place."

Daniel Cunny, 23

University of Iowa senior

Hometown: Carpentersville

Major: History

Supporting: Bill Richardson

Quote: "You pour your heart and soul into a campaign and it sometimes gets pretty emotional. I mean, you try to cultivate a supporter, and eventually it falls through, and it's like 'uggh.' "

Hillary Dover, 22

College of Lake County/University of Iowa senior

Hometown: Grayslake

Major: History

Supporting: John McCain

Quote: "Conservatives are such a minority on campus that it's hard to get our voices heard."

Nicole Dziuban, 19

University of Iowa senior

Hometown: St. Charles

Major: Political science (prelaw)

Supporting: Hillary Clinton

Quote: "I'm very passionate about civil rights; that really got me involved, wanting to make sure that all people's voices are heard."

Shana Kohn, 23

University of Iowa senior

Hometown: McHenry

Major: Political science, philosophy

Supporting: Rudy Giuliani

Quote: "How well (Giuliani) does in Iowa depends in part on how much work we've put into it. Knowing that we've helped out from bottom up is a satisfaction. It's something I know I'll never forget."

Nate Koppel, 21

Drake University senior

Hometown: Naperville

Major: Politics, philosophy

Supporting: Barack Obama

Quote: "I see myself getting the chance to work in a nonprofit or government job. I think the opportunities to change the world for the better in those kinds of work environments are practically endless."

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