I recently asked my students at the small technical college where I teach in Boston whether they had registered to vote. All were at least 18 years old. At that age, they could be drafted into the military, tried in a court of law as an adult, or keep their grades private from a parent (even one supporting them financially). 

Voting, though? No. They weren’t much into that.

Of the roughly 40 students I taught this week, none said they were registered to vote. I realize that’s hardly a representative polling sample but they all share something compelling about America right now — and I told them so.

“What if I said you would decide who became our next U.S. president. Would you believe me?”

Some looked down. Some searched the room, perhaps to see if they had missed something.

“Because you are all young people of color. And from what little I’ve read about population changes and demographics, you will play a key role in the next election.” 

But only if they register to vote.

A few nodded. A couple said, “Yeah. I’d believe that.” 

The numbers from the Pew Research Center back me up. Pew projects that a third of eligible voters in 2020 will be nonwhite.

Of course eligibility is not synonymous with actuality. While Hispanics will outnumber blacks among eligible voters next year, according to Pew, blacks were substantially more likely than Hispanics to vote. The number of Hispanic eligible voters who didn’t vote exceeds the number of those who did in every presidential election since 1996.

The majority of my students are the first in their families to matriculate college. They came of age with a president whose skin color was similar to theirs, followed by one who regularly derides the countries they and their families left for America.

This squares with my conversation with students. They said they don’t follow politics. That their vote didn’t matter. Their parents vote, sometimes. Other times, life is too complicated. 

The majority of my students are the first in their families to matriculate college. They have no memory of Sept. 11. It happened before many of them were born. They came of age with a president whose skin color was similar to theirs, followed by one who regularly derides the countries they and their families left for America.

Voters their age showed up for the 2016 election, the only age group that increased turnout from 2012. We also know that 2018 midterm elections bore witness to a staggering number of college student voters. A fascinating Tufts University study found that 40 percent of eligible college students cast ballots, up from 19 percent in 2014. I majored in journalism and U.S. politics in college, yet I’ve never embraced a midterm with the gusto that students did last year.

These are no ordinary times, and young people seem to recognize that. 

But not my students. Is it a lack of civics education, which is effectively playing second fiddle to STEM courses? Or is it because young people from cities like Philadelphia and Boston, with their viable public transportation, increasingly do not obtain driver’s licenses, which is often a prompt to register to vote? Have we unintentionally blocked voting on ramps for our youngest voters? 

Or maybe there is a tech disconnect. A New York Times report on spending by Democratic presidential candidates said the lion’s share of their money was going to Facebook, despite its problematic role in democracy. My students say Facebook is for their grandmothers. They engage on Snapchat, listen to music on Spotify, and imbibe plenty of content from YouTube. 

Some of you are probably thinking, why is she so worried about 40 students?

Because they represent everything good about America at this seminal, volatile moment. My students are pursuing trades, meaningful and practical occupations that will likely allow them to swiftly repay student loans (far faster than their professors have repaid theirs).

They are young mothers studying to be automobile mechanics. New immigrants training in opticianry. They speak Spanish and Creole and Portuguese at home. Their English is wobbly at times but they are steadfast in their resourcefulness and their ability to support one another through difficult tests and assignments.  

Their resilience inspires hope in me for our future.

Now we — teachers, employers, presidential wannabes — need to inspire them in turn. About America, and why it needs all citizens to fully participate. Democracy works best when we all play a role.

Kendra Stanton Lee teaches at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston (pictured above). Her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Slate and other publications.

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