With all three presidential debates happening at university campuses across the country, College Debate 2016 saw a crucial piece of the puzzle that was missing: actual youth participation in the process. UNLV’s Joel Jimenez was ready to get off the sidelines and jump into the biggest event of the fall semester when the third and final presidential debate takes place at the Thomas & Mack Center Oct. 19.
The sophomore biological sciences major was among the 140 students with a cross-section of ideologies, institutions, and demographics selected from around the country to participate in the program at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, which aims to take issues affecting young voters and get them in front of actual debate moderators.
The question Jimenez most wants to pose to candidates: “What would they do to better our education system? Clark County is one of the biggest school districts in the U.S. — and we're also one of the worst districts. That's a really big problem we have, and that's something I want the presidential candidates to deal with.”
He’s a 2011 graduate of Mojave High School in North Las Vegas, a school that had a graduation rate below 50 percent before entering the state’s Underperforming Schools Turnaround program the year he graduated. Performance at the school improved has since improved, but there is still cause for concern, he said. Nevada ranks 39th among states in percentage of high school graduates according to the United States Census and dead last in Education Week’s annual Quality Counts survey of K-12 education.
“I saw some of my classmates heartbroken when they found out they couldn't graduate due to not having enough credits or not passing the proficiency exams,” Jimenez said.
College Debate is a voter education partner for the Commission on Presidential Debates, which oversees the general election presidential and vice presidential debates. It gathered student delegates on the Dominican campus in June to narrow the issues that would they would focus on.
“I've always had an interest in politics since I was a kid,” Jimenez said. “My dad and my family, we like to debate a lot. We always debate about the issues we face today. I'm really passionate about it. I want my voice to be heard.”
Eventually, Jimenez and his fellow delegates settled on social justice/civil rights, immigration, education, income inequality/economy, and foreign policy.
In September, they returned for a town hall-style meeting to develop specific questions that they hope will grab the attention of the debate moderators — Lester Holt, who leads the Sept. 26 event; Elane Quijano, Oct. 4 vice presidential event; Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper, Oct. 9 town hall; and Chris Wallace, who will lead the final presidential debate Oct. 19 at UNLV. The moderators alone select the questions to be asked, which are not known to the commission or to the candidates.
The College Debate experience began with students, representing a wide variety of viewpoints, participating in Bring It to the Table, a multimedia civic engagement program that tries to get students to understand where others with opposing ideologies are coming from and to champion civil discourse.
“Being exposed to so many other political views was very helpful,” Jimenez said. “The experience helped me become a more tolerant citizen toward different political views.”
Ultimately, the education question College Debate settled on was, “How will you ensure quality education to areas of socioeconomic disadvantage both in terms of K-12 and access to higher education?”
A student’s attitude toward education starts at home, but Jimenez recognizes that in homes at a socioeconomic disadvantage, parent time can be limited by work schedules. Jimenez believes better funding for afterschool programs in those areas would would help students develop a better perception of education.
Along with the education, the delegates hope the moderators will consider these queries:
- “What is your plan for aiding the employment of skilled refugees and immigrants in their respective fields?” (immigration)
- “What will you do to reduce the recidivism and mass incarceration rates in communities where poverty and violence are prevalent?” (social justice)
- “How would you restructure governmental assistance programs for the unemployed or impoverished to obtain self-sufficiency?” (income inequality)
- “What specific circumstances would prompt the United States to use military resources in a foreign country? How would you utilize the nation’s military resources?” (foreign policy)
- “How do you plan on supporting Syrian civilians without creating further conflict with other political actors?” (foreign policy)
Now the task becomes a question of influence. Jimenez and fellow participants are campaigning on social media to have their questions included. But even if he and fellow participants can’t get Holt to bite on #CollegeDebate16 for the first debate, he said they’re going to keep pushing to get Cooper’s, Raddatz’ and Wallace’s attention.
“The presidential debate is creating a political atmosphere around campus, which I'm sure will encourage a lot of students to go out and vote,” Jimenez said.
And who knows: Maybe by the time the candidates come to the Thomas & Mack Center, they won’t just have a venue in UNLV, they’ll be compelled to address its students directly.