College Students Are Politically Active - but Don't Vote ; Disillusioned with Politics, They Channel Their Energies into 'Green' Causes or Work at the Local Soup Kitchen

Article excerpt

Less than eight weeks before the US presidential election, not a single campaign flier can be found on New York University's campus.

Instead, students are rallying against sweatshops, vowing to abolish the death penalty, and dancing to Bob Marley's once- revolutionary reggae at the student-clubs street fair.

"Students are really disillusioned with the political system we have," says history major Rebekah Wolf, as she displays a "Free Tibet" flag at her table. "It's easier to be involved in social issues because they are moral issues. Politics doesn't seem to have any sort of heart anymore."

With voter turnout rates among young people expected to hit historic lows this fall, it's easy to see why today's college students have been labeled as indifferent, apathetic - even antidemocratic.

But the students themselves say that's not the case. Rather, they're finding other outlets for political activism, most of which are outside mainstream venues. By targeting specific causes, such as the environment, or volunteering in the local soup kitchen, many feel they're having a greater impact.

"I don't think that students are apathetic," says NYU comparative media major Darcy Savit. Many young people are choosing to get involved in grass roots campaigns, she says, where "it seems like the effect is more immediate."

Indeed, 60 percent of students say they prefer community volunteerism to political engagement as a better way to solve important issues facing the country, according to a national survey of college undergraduates conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. More and more students are volunteering as tutors, staffing homeless shelters, and providing companionship for adults and children with AIDS.

This interest in social activism and volunteering gives some experts cause to be optimistic about today's youths, despite the low voter turnout.

"I think that college students and young people in general are much more politically active than we give them credit for," says CNN Headline's Michele Mitchell. "Young people feel disenfranchised from what's happening on the national scene, but they feel very involved in what's happening in their own backyards."

In some cases, this community activism can spark an interest in politics. At New York's Columbia University, students are registering to vote at the same table they are signing up with "Community Impact," a community service organization.

"People who are conscious about the community tend to be conscious of overarching political issues," says Columbia student and volunteer Miriam Sheinbein. …