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CMU: get politically active!

In 1969, The Tartan reported that the Carnegie Mellon Student Senate claimed: “a demonstration on the CMU campus was about as unlikely as a meteor hitting Warner Hall.” A week later, that statement was proven false when students and faculty marched to protest campus construction and supported the Black Construction Coalition and black construction workers in Pittsburgh. Even at the time, the student body was known to be “apathetic," but that protest showed that students cared about the issues and have the ability to get involved.

There are a lot of parallels that can be made between then and now. Both periods are eras of political turmoil and identity shifts in a polarized landscape, so it is becoming increasingly important for us to be involved. Our senators, representatives, and executive branch don’t represent the nation’s best interests. The cliché idea thrown around is that our generation is the only one capable of fixing the mess left behind by decades of bad policy and half-measures based on compromises with saboteurs who were only in it for their own gain. While we certainly are not the only ones capable, we are the ones who will have to deal with the consequences. It’s our obligation to be involved and change the course of our present and future.

So how does our campus step up to the obligation to be involved with the issues? We spoke to 24 students across campus and asked them three questions: First, how politically involved are you? Second, how politically aware do you find the campus body as a whole? Third, what are the ways Carnegie Mellon students can get more involved in the issues?

For political involvement, six people answered “really involved,” (four of them were international relations majors) eight people answered “somewhat involved," five people answered “a little bit involved," and five people answered “not interested at all." But in response to the question regarding political awareness on campus, only four people answered “really involved” while 14 out of the 24 respondents answered “a little bit involved." The six respondents who answered “somewhat involved” for this question also strongly indicated that students could do more. “It’s definitely better than I thought it would be for a tech school,” says Nick Bellante, a junior studying both international relations and politics and policy and management.

Of course, this shouldn’t be taken as a statistically significant representation of campus political awareness, but it still speaks volumes that many students in a relatively random survey, most of whom aren’t connected to each other beyond going to the same university, were critical of the campus’s lack of political awareness. It’s disheartening to see because it’s important for the student body to understand the political and ethical ramifications of the work that the university is engaged in, such as military research.

“I can count on one hand the number of protests that have happened at CMU. Can you think of a lot of the direct actions that have happened at CMU in the last year?” says Maggie Oates, a Ph.D. student studying societal computing.

Many respondents were quick to point out why they thought this was the case. Some noted the job prospects for students. “People at this school especially are more focused on the monetary aspect of their degree, like ‘can this degree get me paid?’” says Ruel Beresford, a junior double majoring in biochemistry and international relations and politics. Others noted the university’s work culture as a significant factor in its political apathy. “We’re all so busy that we can’t be expected to know everything about everything, but I still think that’s not an excuse to not know anything,” says Yash Hari, a senior studying statistics and machine learning. Some international students also noted their discomfort. “The thing is I am international, so I don’t like to give my political views here,” says Spandan Sharma, a sophomore studying electrical and computer engineering.

Career building is one of the goals of coming to college, but it’s not an excuse to ignore the impact of the tech giants who hire our students. Students who don’t take the time to research the company or contractor they want to work for further enables these companies to engage in dubious work. However, the university should be doing more to engage with companies who aren’t doing work for institutions that violate human rights. Additionally, students shouldn’t be so caught up in their work and career goals that they forgo political involvement. These conversations are difficult, and it won’t be possible if people check out because they don’t want to deal with it. We should encourage each other, including international students, to take part in the discourse.

That leaves us with the final question: what are ways to get Carnegie Mellon students more involved? All the survey respondents had a wide array of answers.

“There should be four required courses for everyone at the university, especially STEM majors: an ethics course, a politics course, a history course, and a writing course,” says Austin Goetz, a junior majoring in international relations and politics.

“There should be more signs everywhere having students register to vote,” says Omar Elmady, a junior majoring in psychology.

“It would be cool to see university sponsored, non-partisan events that are from [the university’s] point of view rather than just having clubs sponsoring it,” says Navid Mamoon, a sophomore studying business administration.

“If we reduce the stress culture, then students will find the time to join organizations and be able to be more politically involved and think about these types of issues instead of just constantly thinking about the next assignment,” says Reneé Nikolov, a sophomore studying international relations and politics and behavioral economics.

There is a shifting dynamic on campus with students wanting to get more involved, and many of them have indicated their ideas on what the student body and administration should do. It’s on us all to get involved, and we should be doing all that we can to do so, including our administration.