Months ago, students Elijah Nicholas and Ronald Terry noticed that their campus lacked political engagement. There were no candidate forums, voter education workshops, or other events they thought should be held on campus, especially during an election year. Students appeared disinterested in the unfolding political scene, prompting Nicholas and Terry to take action. 

The two Prairie View A&M students run their campus NAACP chapter and have spent weeks organizing events aimed at fostering political engagement on campus, partly driven by a sense of obligation. They’ve organized numerous social events, attracting politicians to speak at their school. If they don’t lead by example, both say, the campus will suffer. 

“Many students just don’t care to receive regular political knowledge — basic knowledge of what’s going on — but when you add a little twist to it, or you add Greek life into it, something that they enjoy, something that they see, or something they are seeking to be a part of, they’ll show up,” Nicholas said. 

Nicholas and Terry are among many students trying to compel their peers to become politically involved this year, against a backdrop of factors that are a bit different than those at predominantly white institutions. Nationwide, college students appear “less committed to voting than in the recent past,” according to the 2023 Harvard Youth Poll.

Amanda Wilkerson, a professor and researcher at the University of Central Florida, argues that while voting is important, it may not necessarily align with the broader goals of equity and social change that many students at historically Black colleges and universities espouse.

Unlike previous generations who prioritized the right to vote, she feels today’s youth voters are less inclined to view voting as an end-all, be-all of sorts.

“I don’t see voting contributing to those goals at all,” Wilkerson said, referring to increasing political engagement. “I think voting is really beneficial to those who cast the vote and those who are receiving the vote.”

Tennessee State University NAACP chapter president Trey Cunningham said leaders at his university have a goal of getting 45 percent of students registered to vote by November.

Courtesy of Trey Cunningham

“Political engagement is extremely important for students. And because a lot of times, I feel like — especially in marginalized communities — we don’t understand the value of it,” Cunningham said. “The value of your vote is actually being your voice; your power is in your vote. We have to meet people where they are … everybody’s not interested in politics.”

Magana Kabugi is an English professor at Fisk University who counts HBCUs among his areas of expertise. Many on his campus and elsewhere find themselves disillusioned with mainstream politics, he said.

“Most Black students are very turned off by Donald Trump and his antics in his racism as well, as you know, not all that enthusiastic about Joe Biden and the Democratic Party ways in which the Democratic Party takes for granted the Black vote,” he said.

Kabugi said the bulk of HBCU students are probably engaging with the political process via social media apps like TikTok and Instagram. He foresees a change in one major political party as young voters formally enter the political sphere in the coming years.

“I think by 2028, we’re going to see millennials and Gen Z voters become a much more substantial percentage of the population, meaning that’s going to have an impact not only on the Democratic Party but also on independent and third parties,” he said. “You have a lot more Black students who are open to experimenting with third parties.”

In regards to politicians using social media as a campaigning tool, Nicholas said it’s a good idea but only to a certain extent.

“I don’t have a problem with politicians using social media to reach out to young voters because they’re just adapting as the generation has modernized. Many people are on social media, and the young crowd is getting older to where we can vote. So why not use social media to reach out to us? But if you overly use social media as a politician, then we start to question. What you are really doing.”

Wilkerson and several colleagues published a 2021 paper on political socialization at HBCUs in Florida. She emphasized that HBCU campuses provide a unique environment where students feel a sense of belonging and are encouraged to explore their political beliefs without fear of judgment.

“On campus at HBCUs, you really get an opportunity to see the diversity in student perspectives when it comes to their political North Star and aligning, and nobody questioned that you don’t have to defend whether or not you’re part of a particular political party,” Wilkerson said.

Expanding upon this view, Terry, the Prairie View A&M student, emphasized the importance of action over mere rhetoric.

“I think the best ability for anybody is availability. Being there matters. I think that is what life is about — showing up. Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Just do it. Don’t talk about it, be about it.”

Skyler Winston is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.

Skyler is a junior journalism major at Howard University.