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By Sydney Brown
Pixelated boxes filled with fidgety fifth graders were displayed horizontally in an elementary school’s Zoom meeting when Itzel De La Cruz began her presentation about voting on Nov. 3. The students — some in the back seats of cars, snuggled on couches with their pets or perched at the dining room table with their devices — nonetheless paid close attention to De La Cruz’s message about voting on Election Day.
De La Cruz was one of nine college students involved in a service learning collaboration between CSU Monterey Bay and the Monterey County Office of Education. College students are paired with K-12 teachers to give talks about topics ranging from the census to environmental justice. In fall 2020, the presentations focused on voter registration, the electoral college, government history and general information about democracy.
For the next 90 minutes after De La Cruz’s presentation, the fifth graders’ teacher, Erin Groner-Nelsen, led the class through questions and answers about the election. Groner-Nelsen, who attended the same Prunedale Elementary School where she now teaches, said her students were fully engaged, asking questions ranging from what would happen if the Biden-Trump election campaign ended in a tie to whether voters needed to show identification to vote.
“I was really proud that they were that interested,” Groner-Nelsen said. “That was really awesome and unexpected.”
The fifth graders continued to ask questions about the election weeks after De La Cruz came to class. Groner-Nelsen said “they were obsessed” about Trump’s claims of election fraud, longing for the answer to the question many adults were also asking: “What if he refuses to leave the White House?”
To graduate, most CSUMB students are required to take two service learning classes and to complete 55 service hours with local organizations. CSUMB is the only public university in California with this type of required coursework, according to Seth Pollack, director of the CSUMB Service Learning Institute. “The service learning requirement was built in right from day one,” when the university was founded in 1995, Pollack said.
Studies have shown that “near-peer” initiatives that bring together K-12 and college students are mutually beneficial. A 2018 Montana State University study examining the activities of 10th graders and college students involved in a similar high impact program found that high school students had “lasting consequences for their adult behaviors in the realm of civic life.” Additionally, college students had higher levels of civic engagement. Overall, high impact programs such as service learning “play a role in stemming the declining civic engagement seen in the U.S., especially among younger adults,” according to the study.
To hear it from somebody that’s a little closer to their age that is now becoming active and involved in the process and the community is very helpful for students. Jennifer Elemen, educational administrator at the Monterey County Office of Education
The civics service learning collaboration not only promoted skills such as research and public speaking, but also pushed the college students to be more civically engaged themselves.
Second-year marine science major Stephanie Stephens conducted three voter education presentations, and uses social media to spread awareness on voting with a Tik Tok post as part of her service learning work.
Stephens said she was excited to join a program that recognized the need to educate youth on government and politics. She spoke to students across various age ranges and noticed younger kids were more engaged than high schoolers.
Giving presentations helped Stephens overcome her fear of public speaking. “I definitely came out of my comfort zone,” she said.
“I’m all about getting people to vote and I still didn’t know too much myself,” Stephens said, “so having to do research to get these presentations perfect, I definitely learned a lot.”
For the K-12 students, officials hope that the initiative will inspire more youth to participate in civic engagement activities and vote when they are old enough. K-12 students have an opportunity to become “involved in the democratic process” and “connect with (college) students directly,” said Jennifer Elemen, MCOE educational administrator.
Elemen, a social studies teacher for many years, now oversees countywide civics, history and social studies education at the MCOE. She serves as a liaison between college students completing service learning and K-12 teachers, a partnership that aids MCOE in implementing curriculum requirements on government education.
“It’s impactful to have people present to students who are closer to their age,” Elemen said. The K-12 students saw service learning presenters as role models and “listened more attentively than they usually do and … the way the conversations develop is authentic to what they’re interested in.”
It’s about (young people) learning about what’s happening in the world around them and their community and connecting it to their identity. Jennifer Elemen, educational administrator at the Monterey County Office of Education
Since it only started a few months ago, most of the program’s impact is so far anecdotal. While the program had for the most part run smoothly, it has not been free of challenges. CSUMB sociology major Sadie Brown started working as a service learning site leader at the beginning of the fall semester. She helps oversee the scheduling and logistics of the program.
Brown said that despite the eagerness of everyone involved, there weren’t enough presentation opportunities for all of the college students, due to complications within online learning and presentation time restrictions. Sometimes teachers were so busy juggling online work, they didn’t have time to coordinate with external speakers. Other college students reported that software hiccups also complicated scheduling.
Brown also said some college students were discouraged by the policy of K-12 teachers mediating the presentation topics. They would speak to a class simply “to get some hours” to meet their graduation requirement.
When a few service learners were unable to present, the group created an alternative community service activity during which college students read to K-12 students and tutored them in reading.
The online format was also challenging. Kieler Sargent, a humanities and communications major, said that it was a struggle to complete his service learning hours online. “I don’t really feel like I helped [students learn about voting] a lot,” he said.
Both Stephens and Brown attended the largest presentation from the service learning partnership, where more than 100 students ranging from second to eighth grade put on their democracy caps in a mock voting session. After the assembly ended, students were bubbling with questions and were interested in having a voice through voting.
The kids were first asked simple questions, like “is soccer or basketball the superior sport?” and then moved on to more difficult concepts, like voting for a candidate. Elemen of MCOE said the mock voting assembly was a fun way to practice civic engagement within the barriers of online learning.
Elemen chuckled when remembering the assembly, saying students were told it “doesn’t mean the people who like basketball better are wrong, it’s just majority rules.”
Matt Garcia, a history teacher at Greenfield’s Vista Verde Middle School, invited a college student to inform his eighth grade class about the pros and cons of the electoral college. His eighth graders were especially intrigued when Garcia’s service learner, Nancy Cornejo, introduced Proposition 18 during the presentation.
That ballot proposition would have allowed 17-year-olds in California to vote in the primary election, but it failed to pass in the November election.
“There were a number of students that paid particular attention to that and referred back to that or made comments about that in later classes,” Garcia said.
His current students have shown a much stronger interest in the past few elections than when he started teaching 21 years ago, Garcia said.
Combating the awkwardness of Zoom culture, Garcia was grateful to have a college student visit the online classroom and encourage his eighth graders, who tend to be more reserved in showing their excitement towards new topics.
“To hear it from somebody that’s a little closer to their age that is now becoming active and involved in the process and the community is very helpful for students,” he said.
Garcia couldn’t help but grin when imagining ways the CSUMB and MCOE partnership could grow over the years. Upon returning to in-person classes, he hopes the program will take Vista Verde student activism to the next level, where college students not only present to his middle schoolers, but also conduct civic engagement activities outside of the classroom.
“Getting the information in the school and then getting the kids active outside of the school, I think would be really awesome volunteer work that would take it to the next step,” he said. “I know once our schools reopen we will be right back into the mix of ‘how do we get our students more active and involved?’”
Elemen agreed. “It would be great to do more of this and connect it with youth participatory action and research projects or civic action projects,” she said.
The next step for the MCOE’s service learning initiative will be shifting focus from the political sphere to environmental literacy and climate justice in a partnership with the Monterey County Office of Sustainability to form a Youth Climate Leadership Council, Elemen said. The program also supports the county’s efforts to increase civic learning both in and out of the classroom through initiatives such as the implementation of the newly adopted State Seal of Civic Engagement.
Elemen said she believes it’s programs like the service learning collaboration with CSUMB that will bridge the gap from academic knowledge to student action.
“It’s about (young people) learning about what’s happening in the world around them and their community, and connecting it to their identity and helping to co-create that future together with adults,” Elemen said.
“I want them to learn about their history, their community’s needs and help to take steps towards solving problems collectively and designing the future that they deserve.”