Nur Mood looks into the future every day — in the form of the bright young people walking across his St. Paul campus. As coordinator of social justice initiatives and strategic relations for Hamline University, Mood is leading an effort to channel youthful energy and civic-mindedness into action in a singular way: voting. Under Mood’s leadership, the student voting rate jumped from 41% in the 2014 midterm elections to an enviable 63% in 2018. The 35-year-old Somali-American with degrees in applied economics and business recently returned from our nation’s capital, where he shared ideas for engaging youth voters nationally. He shares updates and why voting means so much to him personally.
Q: What do you remember about your first voting experience?
A: It was in 2010, while I was a college student in Duluth. It was a few months after I became a U.S. citizen. It was important for me to vote because it was the first time I voted in my life. I can’t be president, but anything else I can do. After I cast my vote, I was so excited and felt that my vote mattered. I’ve lived in Somalia and Egypt and never had the opportunity to vote.
Q: Now you’ve made it your mission to channel that excitement to college students. Why is it important that they engage in this civic act?
A: Because voting and civic engagement, in general, affect the future in which the young voter will live. The people they elect create the policies that determine what will happened in their communities.
Q: In 2014, about 41% of Hamline students voted in the midterm election. By 2018, it was 63%. How did you make that happen?
A: We worked very hard to engage the entire Hamline campus community. And the Hamline University Student Congress was a big part of our success. We also had support from organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and League of Women Voters, which allowed us to host engagement events and raise awareness about Election Day. On the day of the midterm elections, I pushed all the students from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We didn’t care how much gas we were using to get them to the polls. It was important to have every single person on campus go out and vote.
Q: How much research do you and your students conduct on candidates before an election?
A: I prepare the students to vote by using the information from the Secretary of State’s website. I print out the ward information and candidates and tape it to the seats in the van we use to transport the students to the polls. During the process, I do my personal research.
Q: Tell us about the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, which awarded you its platinum seal.
A: The All In Campus Democracy Challenge, in collaboration with higher education institutions, seeks to make participation in local, state and federal elections a social norm and substantially increase the number of college students who are democratically engaged on an ongoing basis, during and between elections, and not just at the polls. In awarding us the seal, they said Hamline was among institutions “changing culture on campus … resulting in the incredible student voter turnout rates that we’ve seen across the country.”
Q: You just got back from Washington, D.C., where you participated on a panel to talk about the youth vote with people from Harvard, Oakland University and University of Michigan. What brought you together?
A: It was an initiative of the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement out of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and a group called Students Learn Students Vote. At the more than 1,000 colleges and universities participating, student voter turnout has increased by 21 points, from 19% to 40%.
Q: All these groups are nonpartisan. Important to note?
A: Yes, both groups are nonpartisan. This is important to note because our campus is diverse, with diverse viewpoints. Voter participation among college students is what matters, not partisanship.
Q: What wisdom did you impart to participants at the D.C. conference?
A: My advice was to engage students through student organizations and enlist key stakeholders such as members of the faculty and staff who are very influential on campus. In short, make voting a campus community event.
Q: And a habit. What are some barriers to voting for students?
A: We have too many different polling stations for students, which makes things confusing. It would be easier if students could all vote on campus, instead of having to go off campus.
Q: What are other ways to become engaged besides voting?
A: At the conference in D.C., we discussed how telling people to vote is an act of civic engagement. Students can write for their student newspaper and show up at local meetings.
Q: We’re living in a contentious and polarizing time politically. Do you also observe that divisiveness on campus?
A: Over my seven years here, I’ve observed that students are more inclined to vote now than when I first arrived. Hamline students are very passionate and engaged and some of that may be attributed to the times we live in. They also understand that voting is a privilege. If we don’t vote, who’s going to change things?