Talking Sense

St. Olaf election project drives turnout, primes students for more productive political conversations

Two young men shake hands, a third stands holding a button
Freshmen Ali Haidar (center) and Hamza Azzam (left) chat with senior Mazen Nour about becoming student election ambassadors during a recruiting session in the student union at St. Olaf College in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Over a recent lunch hour in the St. Olaf student union, senior Mazen Nour set out to recruit some of his peers to become election ambassadors — students who encourage other students to vote. 

It’s a nonpartisan gig. 

“I don’t really care who you’re gonna vote for, just be civically engaged. That’s all that matters to me,” said Nour, who is graduating soon and in need of replacements to do this engagement work leading up to the presidential election.

The job requires a lot of one-on-one conversations with students who usually need to be convinced that their vote matters, he said.

A closeup of stickers and buttons on a table
Buttons and stickers are displayed during a voter engagement tabling session in Buntrock Commons, the student union at St. Olaf College, in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I remember a particular friend where we sat down and it was one of those, ‘I know my vote’s not gonna count, why should I vote?’ It was a lot of back and forth, constructive dialogue and he ended up voting,” said Nour. 

The election ambassador program at St. Olaf was created in 2020 in response to gaps in turnout between white students and students of color. 

The goal of the program is to leverage the trust that students have within their own peer group to encourage civic participation.

Election ambassadors also help demystify the voting process, said Alyssa Herzog Melby, director for academic civic engagement at St. Olaf. 

“We walk election ambassadors through how to start a conversation with their peers, training them to ask, ‘Are you planning on voting? Are you registered to vote? Can I help walk you through that process? Do you have questions about it?’” she said.

A woman waves at students
Alyssa Herzog Melby (right) waves at passing students while recruiting election ambassadors with senior Mazen Nour at St. Olaf College in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

High turnout not a ‘blip’

St. Olaf has one of the highest student voting rates in the country. In 2020, nearly 90 percent of eligible Oles voted.

“We don’t get to the high numbers that we have as a blip,” said Herzog Melby. “There’s been a really strong and long history of civic engagement at the college — that’s through faculty talking about it with their students, students talking with each other about voting and politics.”

While getting out the vote is a priority on campus, so is soliciting more civic participation from students. Program leaders say those students sometimes sit on the sidelines during election season because they are turned off by partisan rancor.

“Typically the people that are engaged are the people that are most polarized,” said political science professor Chris Chapp, who directs St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Community and facilitates a speaker series that explores diverse political ideas. 

A man looks back as he prepares to walk away
Professor Chris Chapp encourages liberal and conservative students to make room for opposing political viewpoints before a conversation dinner at St. Olaf College in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In contrast, he said people who are less politically engaged tend to be less polarized and often more willing to have conversations with someone who doesn’t think like them — behaviors Chapp said could help reduce political division in the U.S. if they were embraced by more people.

But for many students who have grown up in the isolation of the pandemic and the echo chamber of social media, Chapp said making room for political views that are in conflict with their own can be especially challenging. 

“Students are coming to college and they are clearly craving these types of conversations. But they haven’t always been given the tools to interact in a meaningful way,” he said.

Baked potatoes and political conversation

Students sit in a circle and eat dinner
Students across the political spectrum partake in a conversation over dinner, designed to encourage challenging conversations among peers with opposing viewpoints, at St. Olaf College in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

St. Olaf now includes conversational skills training in courses and workshops to demonstrate effective ways students can talk and interact with people they disagree with politically. The goal is to persuade students to reject polarizing rhetoric and adopt a more open, inquisitive approach to political discussions.  

Over a baked potato dinner in March, those interaction skills were put to the test between liberal and conservative students.

“Explain your views, and try to understand the other person,” junior Sarah Dustin told the gathering as she set out the ground rules for the evening. “You’re not trying to convince the other person to change their mind.”

Junior Tomas Useche was the first to share that immigration is driving his decision to vote for conservative candidates. 

“I was born in Venezuela, and my parents worked their way here, they came through all the legal channels,” he said. “To have the other perspective saying that ‘Oh, we should let them in, give them benefits,’ it's kind of an insult to all the work that my parents put in, that I’ve put in.”

Over the next hour, the conversation veered to other topics like abortion, what’s being taught in public schools, and even how some students fear being rejected by their peers for having views that don’t fit neatly into liberal or conservative values. 

A woman talks during a student discussion
Junior Lissi Reid speaks during a conversation to encourage challenging conversations among students with opposing political viewpoints at St. Olaf College in Northfield on March 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Later, as things wrapped up, junior Lissi Reid, who identifies as liberal, brought the conversation back to immigration. 

“As someone who lives very far from the border, it was really interesting to hear stories from people who connect so deeply with that as an issue,” she said. “It makes so much sense to me that if you’ve worked so hard for something, to watch others get it for free is kind of hard.”

Going forward, Reid said she will seek out more personal stories to help her connect with and understand people who see things differently than she does.