When Jesse Kayan formed the Global Justice League at St. Mary's College of Maryland two years ago, it was common that only a handful turned out for the political meetings.
But as this year's presidential election approached, he watched as dozens more students began showing up. Dormitory rooms at the small liberal-arts college in Southern Maryland have been packed for debate-watching parties. Student groups have deployed people to swing states to help sway undecided voters.
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"A lot of people are deciding apathy's not the way to go if they want to make things different," said Kayan, 20, a junior.
Two surveys, one from St. Mary's College and another released yesterday by Harvard University, indicate that more U.S. students are abandoning an attitude of political indifference. Students are motivated not only by the contentious presidential race and the war in Iraq, but also by a sense after the 2000 election that every vote matters, according to students and professors who took part in the research.
The St. Mary's survey, which questioned 134 of the school's students, found that 89 percent said they had registered to vote and that 96 percent watched the debates between President Bush and the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). They cited the war and "tolerance for those who are different" as the most pressing issues. Like young people on many campuses, a clear majority of the St. Mary's students said they favored Kerry.
"Very few people seem to believe there's no real choice, that the candidates are all the same," said Louis Hicks, a sociology professor at St. Mary's and the lead researcher on the study. "And that was a common refrain four years ago" when Bush ran against Vice President Al Gore.
The Harvard poll, by the university's Institute of Politics, found that 52 percent of college students preferred Kerry, compared with 39 percent for Bush. Kerry's lead had grown slightly since March, according to the sampling of 1,202 college students from a national database of 5.1 million students across the country.
In addition, the number of students who stated that they will "definitely be voting" on Election Day rose to 84 percent from 62 percent six months ago, the Harvard poll found. Four years ago, 51 percent of college students said that political involvement rarely has tangible benefits; this time, 26 percent of students said they believe that, according to the poll.
"Many students used to feel that politics were irrelevant to their lives," said Jonathan Chavez, 21, a senior at Harvard who worked on the poll. "It's exciting that college students are getting the message that their participation counts."
Chavez said student political groups now gather frequently to work on phone banks to win over voters in hotly contested states. Some politically active students took the semester off to campaign, he said. Others at Harvard have tried to mobilize voters by distributing thousands of T-shirts with the slogan "I Decide."
"The conflict in Iraq and Sept. 11 definitely gave us an awakening. My age group had completely disregarded the political scene," said James B. Kelley, 21, a senior at St. Mary's College. "Now, every other word out of someone's mouth is 'election.' "