UPPER BURRELL, Pa. — The 2016 presidential primary elections are shaping up as a clarion call for the next generation of voters, and students at Penn State New Kensington are heeding the call.
Millie Brasser, a sophomore corporate communications major, founded a committee, My Vote Matters!, to map out a strategic plan and organize activities. The group’s mission is to educate and register first-time voters. The students are dedicated to enlightening young voters on the importance of getting involved in the political process, be it on a local, state or national level. The group doesn’t espouse the views of any political party or candidate.
“Our goal is to make a difference for young people in our country,” said Brasser, a resident of Tarentum. “Students should be proud of our country.”
The project is based on a national model that was detailed in the book “Soul of a Citizen.” Written by Paul Loeb, the book encourages participation in civic activities. While people may think that their vote doesn’t matter, Loeb provides anecdotal evidence of how elections can turn on a scant number of votes and how one vote can turn into hundreds and thousands when like-minded citizens become players in the game of politics.
Last year’s local elections in Westmoreland County offer a case in point. In West Newton Borough, Anthony Berarducci was re-elected to council by one vote, 326-325. In the City of Arnold, which is located about six miles from the campus, the new mayor, Karen Peconi Biricocchi, fended off her opponent by 67 votes.
Brasser read the book as a part of her "Foundations: Civic and Community Engagement" class. She was moved to write the author, who answered her email with a call to action and a list of the resources for starting a My Vote Matters! chapter at the New Kensington campus.
“When he replied back, it just made my day,” said Brasser, whose academic pursuits include minors in international studies and civic engagement. “He suggested using the ‘Campus Election Engagement Project’ to get started.”
The “Campus Election Engagement Project” is a national nonpartisan endeavor that helps America's colleges and universities motivate their 20 million students to register, volunteer in campaigns, educate themselves, and turn out at the polls. Administrators, faculty and staff are encouraged to help engage students on their campuses.
Brasser formed the committee with seven other students: Kyle Waraks, Derrek Koblinsky, Broderick Gerano, Jon McCabe, Sarah Steighner, Danielle Richardson, Aaron Holness, and Cecily Petrarca. They set out to register students to vote, educate students on issues and candidates, recruit volunteers, build election excitement, and get out the vote.
“College kids are so incredibly apathetic when it comes to this,” said Koblinsky in reference of voting. “We want to inform students beyond just registering to vote. I want a secure America for future generations."
The team held its first registration session Feb. 3 during lunch hour in Café 780. Thirty-five campus students signed up to vote at the inaugural session. Registration drives will be held twice a week until the April elections.
“I have one of the greatest teams on the campus,” said Brasser, a native of Peru. “Their devotion, passion and willingness to work beyond my expectations prove to me every day their commitment gives hope for the future of this country.”
The committee has the support of Kevin Snider, chancellor of the campus and Andrea Adolf, director of academic affairs. Craig Hammond, associate professor of history, and Abhinav Aima, instructor in communications, serve as advisers to the group.
"The manner in which this group has moved forward this year is a tremendous credit to Millie and to all the students involved in this group,” Aima said. “They are all working hard to set up events on campus and disseminate information."
Special events are planned to help build election excitement. A “Diplomatic Dinner” is set for Thursday, Feb. 25, in the campus Conference Center. Guest speakers include two state representatives, Eli Evankovich (R-Murrysville) and John Petrarca (D-Vandergrift), and Erin McCelland, who waged an unsuccessful campaign in 2014 against incumbent Keith Rothfus for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District.
"When I came to the United States from India in 1996, it was a culture shock to see the level of apathy and disengagement among the students and the political process,” Aima said. “I have always believed that a politically active and engaged student population is the lifeblood of any democracy, and to see students on our campus this year, energized to spread awareness about political participation, is a very good sign."
Brasser has been passionate about politics ever since she left Peru in 1990 because of an unstable government. She immigrated to New York and then moved to Washington, D.C, before settling in Tarentum to attend Penn State New Kensington because “Penn State offers the best education in the country.”
Since her arrival at New Kensington, Brasser has been a whirlwind of extracurricular activities — both on campus and in the community. Besides My Vote Matters!, she founded the Global Student Organization, a student club that promotes a global culture between national and international students. With more than 50 members, the club is one of the largest on campus.
“I started the international club to bring together people of all cultures to get different perspectives,” said Brasser.
An adult learner, Brasser also serves as an orientation leader and a volunteer for the Better Block program in the city of New Kensington. She pays her tuition by working in the admissions office, and earning a Penn State Alumni Association Trustee scholarship.
For more about My Vote Matters!, contact Brasser at firstname.lastname@example.org.