Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016
Alongside cardboard cutouts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump outside the University Student Commons, Virginia Commonwealth University creative advertising major Nick Salesky recently encouraged his fellow VCU students to get out the vote for the upcoming election.
“You guys want some candy?” Salesky says. “It’s free — so long as you remember to vote!”
Salesky, a senior in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media & Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is taking a special topics service-learning course, “VCU Votes Campaign,” built on encouraging students to vote. First, students in the class designed social media campaigns to encourage VCU students to register to vote, and now they are focused on ensuring students feel informed and prepared to cast their ballots.
“The goal of the course, first of all, is for the students to learn how digital campaigns are run these days,” said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism in the Robertson School and instructor for the course. “But also the goal is to get VCU students to vote so that they make their voices heard on Nov. 8. Either way they want to vote, that’s fine — it’s nonpartisan — we just want them to turn out and vote.”
So far we’ve heard a lot of excitement about the election, but also a little bit of disappointment given the choices.
This week, the class began campaigning on campus, giving students the opportunity to take selfies with the cardboard cutouts and to study literature explaining each of the candidates’ platforms.
“We’re trying to inform students as to what the candidates’ stances are, through both display and literature that we’re handing out,” said Marcus Johnson, a junior public relations major. “We want to get voters more informed about the candidates in this upcoming election. So far we’ve heard a lot of excitement about the election, but also a little bit of disappointment given the choices.”
The VCU Votes students, who wear T-shirts that say “Uncle Ram Wants You #VCUVotes,” are also providing students with information about their polling place locations.
“We can point them to their polling places, and we’ve got fliers that we’ll be handing out in the next couple days that will help with that too,” Johnson said.
The VCU Votes outreach efforts are being conducted in coordination with a project in VCU’s Honors College, which received a grant from the Andrew Goodman Foundation to promote election engagement among VCU students, as well as among disenfranchised communities in Richmond.
The class is split into four teams, with each team primarily responsible for overseeing VCU Votes on either Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. The goal for each team is to drive student voter engagement via social media.
Lilia Souri, a junior public relations major, is on the Snapchat team. So far, she said, the biggest challenge has been finding visual content for Snapchat to keep their followers engaged.
“We had a lot of success when [YouTube personality] Tyler Oakley came to campus,” Souri said. “We Snapchatted a lot from behind the scenes, did interviews with him and stuff like that. The content was really strong that day. But it’s tough to find content when there aren’t any events occurring. So, for example, the next day, we just took a picture of a mayoral yard sign and wrote, ‘Make sure you go out and do your research on the mayoral candidates.’”
On Tuesday, half of the VCU Votes students spent class campaigning outside, while the other half worked to put together an informational flier about the candidates running for Richmond’s mayor.
Several of the students said they are enjoying the hands-on aspects of the VCU Votes course, saying it provides them practical experience with social media campaigns, public relations and politics.
“I work in the communications department at the Virginia Lottery. All the social media that we’re dealing with [in this class] has already helped me in my job,” Souri said. “And, with political science being my minor, I’ve been able to tie in the political aspect to campaigns. So it’s giving me a whole other look at what political campaigns go through to promote their ideas.”
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