An estimated 46 million eligible voters in this year’s election are between 18 and 29 years old – part of the Millennial generation. Will those young voters sway the election? What issues do young people feel are important? What role do they think government should play in their lives? KQED and three other public media organizations on the West Coast are exploring those questions in a series called “Voices of Young Voters.” We fanned out to college campuses around the Bay Area to hear from those who are just coming of age politically.
Nathan Bickart knows it could have been worse.
“Growing up in Marin County, the public schools are incredibly well-funded, and so I’ve had really positive experiences,” said Bickart, 21, of Mill Valley. “But I know that there’s inequality in terms of access to the kind of education I was given.
“I was taking a few education classes (in college) where we like worked in schools in Oakland and in Richmond, and obviously they’re not as well-funded and well off,” said Bickart, who is now a student at the University of California, Berkeley.
Experiences like those have helped shape the opinions of Bickart and other young people weighing political issues this election year. KQED recently asked students at five Bay Area colleges to describe their experiences with government; the stories they shared ranged from serving in the military to waiting in line at the DMV to receiving federal grants to help pay for college. Often, their stories reflected an issue that they were concerned about this election year. Bickart noted that the issues most important to him include Proposition 30, the governor’s proposed tax increases to help fund education.
He was not alone in emphasizing the importance of education funding. Kamryn Herley, 18, of Orange County, echoed Bickart’s comments and talked about her experience in public schools.
“I went to a public high school… and they were cutting teachers and trying to save money and everything, but that made the classes really big,” said Herley, who is now a student at Ohlone College in Fremont. “Personally I like to have one-on-one time with my teachers but I wasn’t able to get that because there were such large classrooms.
“We should have more money towards public education, and I feel that’s a really big part of human life is getting education and I feel like we’re not really focusing in that when we should be,” she said.
Kashawna Williams, 23, of Oakland, also shared a story about her experiences growing up and described how it has influenced her opinion on the issues government should be addressing. Williams is a former foster child, and she wants problems in the foster system fixed.
“I had a major experience with back and forth to different homes and court and trials,” said Williams, now a student at Ohlone College. “That’s why I’m majoring in administrative justice right now because I feel there’s something in that system that needs to be fixed.”
Other students interviewed by KQED said they’ve been frustrated by problems with social services provided by the government.
“A bad experience that I’ve had is filling out paperwork for food stamps,” said San Jose State University student Gabriel Rodriguez Jr., 21, of Fresno. “I specifically didn’t know where in San Jose to go to get the application. I didn’t know you could do it online. I didn’t know when I had to turn the paperwork in… it took a very long time for me to get denied or accepted.
“At the end of the day I got accepted and I am receiving food stamps now, but it was a really big struggle for me to get to that point,” he said.
Sonoma State University student Jude Rowe has had his own close-up view of what it’s like to struggle with a government bureaucracy. His brother is an injured veteran who has been receiving healthcare from the military.
“He still hasn’t gotten completely taken care of. He had surgery like six times on his back from an infection he had when he was in the military,” said Rowe, 30, who is from Rohnert Park and himself served in the Army. “The healthcare system was made to take care of us as people. Is it really doing that? I would say for the most part people take care of themselves. We take care of each other. The system is not necessarily doing the best job at that, even in the military.”
Monika Skinner, 18, of Redwood City, said she feels the government should do more to take care of undocumented immigrants.
“I do have a lot of friends that are… what do you call it?… illegal immigrants. Which you know, it scares you because I’ve had some that have been deported,” said Skinner, a San Francisco State University student. “But they work hard just like anyone would here.
“They’re here to bring money back because they don’t have it, so I get kind of upset about the immigration laws,” she said.
Skinner isn’t alone in occasionally feeling scared of the government.
“I guess the only thing I’ve been involved with the government is, last fall during the Occupy protests, I was put in jail for a little while. That was like my first real conflict with government.” said Ryan Echeverri, 20, of Los Angeles. Echeverri is a Berkeley City College student who was on the University of California, Berkeley campus. “It just seemed like the mood was so good when the police weren’t around and we were just all like partying and having fun, then as soon as they came around it got all sketchy and scary. I don’t know, it turned me off.
“It’s not like I loved the police before that, but now I actively avoid them,” he said.
You can hear more stories about government from Bay Area college students on the “Voices of Young Voters” post. In the clip below, San Francisco State University student Pete Dowdalls, 27, of Walnut Creek, talks about being strip-searched while crossing the border into Canada.