A woman filling out a form on a clipboard. To her right is another women standing while holding some papers. They are both looking at the clipboard.
NextGen Virginia holds a voter registration drive for VCU students in fall 2018. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU Votes recognized with national award

VCU’s nonpartisan student voter engagement initiative received the top award from a national higher education organization.

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VCU Votes, a nonpartisan initiative launched by Virginia Commonwealth University to increase student voter engagement, has been awarded a top National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Excellence Award for its commitment to student civic engagement. 

“We are thrilled to receive the NASPA Excellence Award for our work with VCU Votes,” said Reuban Rodriguez, Ed.D., associate vice president and dean of students. “This award and recognition is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our students, faculty and staff who have worked tirelessly to ensure that our students are active and engaged citizens.”

The NASPA Excellence Awards recognizes innovative practices and initiatives that promote student learning and success in higher education. VCU Votes was selected for the top Gold award based on its dedication to empowering students to participate in the democratic process through voter education, registration and mobilization efforts.

The award category was Civic Learning, Democratic Engagement, Service-Learning and related programs, which includes promoting the education of students for engaged citizenship through democratic participation in their communities, respect and appreciation of diversity, applied learning, and social responsibility. VCU Votes also won the Bronze (top three) designation in comparison to the other Gold category winners.

“We are honored to receive this award and proud of the impact VCU Votes has had on our campus and the greater Richmond community,” said Jackie Smith-Mason, Ph.D., senior associate dean and director of academic and faculty affairs in the Honors College. “Our goal is to continue to empower students to make their voices heard and to make voting a lifelong habit.”

VCU Votes represents a decade-long endeavor involving faculty, staff and students from academic and student affairs units to establish and sustain a successful student voting engagement program. VCU Votes initially began as an honors topics course taught by faculty members in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and supported through a Campus Election Engagement Project grant. 

The program can be replicated and sustained on other campuses using the initiative as a model of best practice. Most importantly, given the diverse nature of VCU’s student body and the city of Richmond in which the university resides, this program has a high impact in its support of underrepresented minorities and the issues related to those communities.

Smith-Mason; Rodriguez; Alexandra Reckendorf, Ph.D., assistant professor and associate chair of VCU’s Department of Political Science; and Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, help guide the students and staff involved in the initiative.

VCU Votes has continued to be a partnership between academic and student affairs at VCU. The Honors College received grants from the Andrew Goodman Foundation and the Campus Vote Project to increase voter engagement at VCU and in the Richmond community. VCU has also been designated as a “Voter Friendly Campus” by the Campus Vote Project, which recognizes schools that develop plans to coordinate administrators, faculty and student organizations in civic and electoral engagement.

VCU Votes utilizes various guideposts to determine the success of its efforts and the impact on student outcomes. Since the launch of VCU Votes in 2012, the initiative has helped register over 15,000 students to vote and has increased voter turnout by 10% in local, state and federal elections. 

VCU Votes has also been recognized by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for achieving a student voting rate of over 50%. In 2016, due to VCU Votes’ efforts, 61.5% of VCU students voted, outpacing the national voting rate among all higher education institutions of 50.4%, according to data compiled by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, an initiative of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. As a result, VCU is a leading institution in student voter registration and engagement and was listed among “America’s Best Colleges for Student Voting” in 2018, 2021 and 2022 by Washington Monthly. 

In 2021, VCU Votes partnered with the city of Richmond to recruit students to serve as Election Day poll workers throughout all of the precincts. This effort was vital in serving areas of the city where underrepresented minority residents voted. The upcoming election in 2022 once again served as a marker for student engagement during an off-year cycle. VCU student engagement numbers will be forthcoming.

VCU Votes will be formally recognized at the NASPA Annual Conference Awards Luncheon in April in Boston.