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Hobnobbing at Harvard

Political engagement rules the Yard

By Greg Botelho

Students entering Harvard have the opportunity to meet scores of national and international leaders.
Students entering Harvard have the opportunity to meet scores of national and international leaders.

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Editor's note: As part of our coverage of the 2004 election season, is sending correspondents to the colleges where they studied to report on issues affecting today's young voters. In this edition, Greg Botelho returns to his alma mater, Harvard University.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Hundreds of Harvard students crammed the Kirkland House common room on a recent evening, awaiting the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts.

The vast majority of students had come not as Kerry cheerleaders but as voters -- to listen to and perhaps to challenge the candidate, determined to make an informed decision in next year's presidential election.

"It's exciting to have partisans there, standing outside Kirkland to see their guy," said senior Peter Buttgieg, a student leader at the university's Institute of Politics. "But it's more exciting to see people come as citizens, because in principle that's how the democratic process works."

The scene was nothing out of the ordinary. At the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus, political heavyweights regularly rub elbows with students and faculty.

The top Democratic candidates for president plan to visit Harvard this fall, said David Gergen, a former senior official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations now at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Each of the candidates will first talk informally with undergrads -- as Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and the Rev. Al Sharpton have already done. Then they're to be grilled by MSNBC host Chris Matthews -- in front of 800 students, staff and others.

"You meet so many [political leaders] on a face-to-face basis," said sophomore Leslie Pope of life at Harvard. "You learn that people in power are not intimidating; they're normal like the rest of us."

Not all students are active in campaigns. But most follow the news closely and harbor passionate views, according to interviews with students and school officials.

"Harvard students certainly care more than the average Joe," said Andrew Ujifusa, editor of the college's student news weekly, the Harvard Independent. "It'd be tough to find a campus where they care more."

Political events part of daily life

All around Harvard Yard, kiosks overflow with notices about upcoming activities, competing for time in students' jam-packed schedules. While music, public service and cultural events are common themes, many of the advertised events focus on politics.

The same night Kerry came to Harvard, for example, the Greek ambassador to the United States appeared in the Yard.

That very week, on-campus events featured Zambia's ambassador and gun-control advocate Sarah Brady. There were protests against U.S. military involvement in Iraq and against rights abuses in Burma. Students discussed oil drilling in Alaska and celebrated U.N. Day.

In recent years, students have shared pizza with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright; joked with comedian/commentator Jon Stewart; and queried ex-President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Pakistani leader Pervez Musharaf and first lady-turned-first mother Barbara Bush.

While Harvard has a liberal reputation, Dan Glickman, the nine-term Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary in Clinton's cabinet now directing the Institute of Politics, says the school tries hard to offer diverse speakers who engage as many students as possible.

Kiosks around campus highlight activities -- many of them politics-related -- that are available to students
Kiosks around campus highlight activities -- many of them politics-related -- that are available to students

"The biggest challenge is to make [students] think politics is relevant to their lives, that it can have some kind of impact," said Glickman, calling Harvard students "heavily independent."

"If you don't get young people involved, you're attacking the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy -- reengaging and reinvigorating it all the time," he added, referencing the founding fathers' assertion that "a little revolution ... is a good thing."

As on many college campuses, far more Harvard students engage in public service -- including 1,300 of the school's 6,400 students involved in programs run through Philips Brooks House, a student-run public service organization -- than participate directly in politics.

The ability to engage young voters, like those at Harvard attuned to the world, could prove critical in the upcoming election, says Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School.

"It's extraordinarily important ... to mobilize young people as the backbone of your campaign, to bring that enthusiasm and vigor," he said.

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