Education

University of Iowa student's advocacy pushes young people to the polls

Jocelyn Roof, a UI senior, has helped register thousands through Hawk the Vote

Jocelyn Roof, a University of Iowa senior, is photographed July 7 in front of the Old Capitol in Iowa City. Roof started
Jocelyn Roof, a University of Iowa senior, is photographed July 7 in front of the Old Capitol in Iowa City. Roof started Hawk the Vote a year ago to help register college students to vote. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa senior Jocelyn Roof envisions a civically engaged society. People would serve on local boards and commissions and go to city council meetings. They’d have respectful but tough conversations with family members about politics and read the news. They’d cast their ballots in each election and understand how to spur change in their communities.

She doesn’t just dream of such a world where people, especially youths, no longer feel disaffected by politics — the 21-year-old from Waterloo works to make it a reality, starting with the UI campus.

Roof aims to inform everyone about the power of the ballot, and even proclaims in her Twitter bio that she’s a “big voting gal.”

“Young people make up a huge bloc of the American electorate, and if they use their voices at the same level as older people then they can make a really tangible difference,” Roof said.

A year ago, she founded the nonpartisan student organization Hawk the Vote, which since has registered about 2,500 students to vote and encourages young people to make their voices heard through their votes. The group, born out of previous student government efforts to boost youth voter turnout, reported in fall 2019 that UI voter turnout increased 16 percent in about four years as Roof and other student leaders pushed for civic engagement to be a top institutional priority.

Before serving as the group’s executive director, she led the UI Student Government Governmental Relations Committee and took on initiatives to promote civic engagement, including voter registration. She was named a 2019 Newmann Civic Fellow and earned a UI award for her contributions to the community as a student leader.

Making politics cool

Roof gets fellow students engaged in politics by staking out popular campus spots and asking passersby “Are you registered to vote?” or making social media videos to inform people about political candidates. Roof said she has found meaning in connecting people her own age with information about the policies and people who affect issues they care about.

“I’ve been able to see so many people go from being more apathetic to actually really caring about politics and being super invested in what’s happening at a local, state and federal level,” Roof said. “ ... It’s almost contagious when you make voting or politics cool, or seem cool, then a ton of people get involved.”

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Erika Christiansen, Hawk the Vote staff adviser, said Roof models how to live in congruence with her own values.

“Jocelyn has been able to take an idea and bring it to action, and did so with others rather than in isolation,” Christiansen said. “She embodies that leadership occurs through teamwork, and each team member will bring their strengths and experiences to work toward a common goal together. I have been so impressed with how our students want to engage in civic action. My hope is that Hawk the Vote will continue to thrive and educate our students, even in years where we do not have a caucus or a presidential election.”

A fresh perspective

The student group, though in its infancy, seems to be on its way to accomplishing that goal of institutionalizing civic engagement at the UI, senior Connor Wooff said. The president of UI Undergraduate Student Government, Wooff previously worked with Roof on Hawk the Vote’s governmental relations initiatives.

He said Roof is a strong campus leader who pushes UI officials to prioritize civic engagement and seeks avenues for change when there’s room for improvement.

“I was very involved in political campaigns and getting people registered to vote for one party, but she really kind of pushed me and others to think of civic engagement as this basic right that we ideally want everyone to practice,” Wooff said. “And it is so nonpartisan that it should be a priority of every office on campus.”

After Roof graduates next year, she said she hopes to do work that connects universities with communities to find solutions to public policy problems and empower young people to be engaged with the world around them.

The spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement as the 2020 general election approaches has given her a fresh perspective on her voter registration efforts as she looks toward senior year.

“Voting and access to voting shouldn’t be a partisan issue, just like human rights and people’s livelihoods and safety,” she said. “... It’ll be more of our goal this fall to not only register students and make sure they know how to vote, but also that they understand what a privilege it is to vote and how to defend their own right to vote moving forward.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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