At Conference, Students Reflect on Tense Political Climate

Undergraduates from across the United States convened at Harvard’s Institute of Politics to look back at the November presidential election and reflect on the nation’s political climate.

Started in 2003, the “National Campaign and Political Engagement Conference” brings together more than 70 undergraduates from 28 schools involved in campaigning on campuses during the most recent election cycle. Attendees spent most of the weekend in small group settings discussing their past campaign experiences and plans for future civic engagement at their respective schools.

Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III and former Congressman William D. Delahunt kicked off the conference Friday with opening remarks that emphasized a need to foster bipartisan respect and a need to heal wounds of what they characterized as a divisive campaign season.

John Della Volpe, the IOP's director of, opened the second day of the conference on Saturday with a town hall, asking students to share their partisan affiliation and to formulate a list of issues they deemed pressing to national politics. Students then broke out into small group discussions to think of initiatives or policies that could contribute to solving issues related to citizenship, inequality, and the media.

Despite a recent IOP poll that found young Americans were divided—mostly along party lines—in their opinions on the future of the United States, when asked if the US was headed in the right direction, not a single student at the conference raised their hand.


An informal straw poll conducted by Della Volpe found that the attendance of the conference leaned left, though Republicans and Independents were represented in moderate numbers.

Jeremy Salley, a student at the University of Southern California, worked in a group focusing on the category of inequality. Salley said he was particularly inspired by discussions of education in the United States.

“I’m getting a chance to tackle issues that are really hitting home for me. Education is major. We’re working on education as a grassroots approach for inequality. That’s probably the top thing, one of the top three reasons for the outcome of the election and what we’re seeing today in America,” Salley said.

Later, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Kennedy School professor David R.Gergen spoke about today’s political divisiveness and similar moments in American history. The speakers discussed presidencies of Harvard alumnus Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, both subjects of Goodwin biographies, as a means of analyzing present day American political disagreements.

Mariam Eatedali, a conference attendee from the University of Virginia, said she looked for parallels between Goodwin and Gergen’s discussion of history and our current shifting attitudes toward the presidency.

“Professor Gergen had talked about how Teddy Roosevelt was fearless and we heard stories from Dr. Goodwin about of course Lincoln from ‘Team of Rivals,’ but I think I wanted to know what... President Trump’s definition is,” Eatedali said. “ How is the presidency changing?”

—Staff Writer Lucas Ward can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @lucaspfward


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