Students play important role in local politics


By population, South Dakota State University makes up about one-third of Brookings when school is in session. In terms of political importance, Brookings Mayor Tim Reed said this number is not belittled by any means.

A forum, held in the Union Market Place three weeks ago for city council candidates, demonstrated this and allowed students to be more aware of local politics.

Some students are not fully aware of local politics and issues because of a separated perception of campus and the city, lack of time to become an engaged voter and the sense that their vote won’t have an impact. 

This political awareness is not always as widespread as it is aimed to be, according to Faith Robinson, registered Brookings voter and interdisciplinary major. She believes student engagement in local politics is important, but that most students are unaware of what’s going on at the local level.

“I think a way they can be better involved is to have someone come here and have someone talk about what’s going on in local politics. Everyone sees the signs but that’s all that you’re getting [informed on],” Robinson said. “I think they’re probably important, but students don’t think about it because students feel like their vote doesn’t matter too much, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do anyways.”

Many times, local government is also seen as an individual entity by students, which can lead to less political activity and progressively less student voices being heard, said Ashley Tonak, former state and local government chair for Students’ Association.

“I think the biggest thing is that students have a large economic impact on the city … it seems like SDSU is separate from the community,” Tonak said. “I think people forget that we do make up a large chunk of the population when school’s in session.”

Even from an outsider’s perspective, SDSU is still viewed as a separate body from Brookings.

“I am a transfer student [from Seattle, Washington], and so someone who grew up in South Dakota would have different views, but from my view I think [campus is] seen as more separate than connected,” Robinson said.

For on-campus residents, most necessities are within walking distance and there isn’t a large need to drive anywhere off campus. According to junior graphic design major Andrew Gale, this is what can cause a disconnection between students and the community.

“I view [campus] more as separate as I came here as a freshman and living on campus, but now living off campus I see there are more activities that support students in the community, and it helps feel more connected all together,” Gale said.

Another reason why some students are not active with local government is because they see their time here as temporary, which makes the effort of getting up to speed and active with politics not worth it.

“[I’m] not so much [engaged], I’m not from around here so I’m not familiar in the community and the people who are running for city council,” said Matthew Volquardsen, sophomore pre-pharmacy major.

To Mayor Reed, increasing student political involvement and letting their voices be heard is key to growing the community and helping connect students with the city.

“We enjoy having SDSU here and the students are part of that and it’s important to have as many students here as possible … we want to build this community so we have their input,” Reed said. “The other thing is people are out here looking for jobs, we’re looking to retain the students after graduation, we need a workforce here in Brookings with the degrees students at SDSU graduate with.”

SA helps link campus activities to the city to better represent campus positions and views on current issues. In fact, part of Tonak’s role is to be the active role in communicating campus activities with the city and vice versa. 

“I go to every city council meeting so I’m there at least twice a month, and in every meeting I give a report with what’s going on in campus to ensure the city knows what’s going on,” Tonak said.

According to Reed, this has been a successful medium for campus to represent itself and it’s viewpoints.

“We have a good relationship with Students’ Association so that’s one of the first places that we go to work with students, and they’re also coming to our city meetings and there’s interest in college students with things they can get involved with,” Reed said. “We always try to make sure students are involved when making city plans … biking [for instance] is a current one where we have a strong representation from the university.”

In fact, there are multiple local government student positions that are aimed to allow those student voices to be heard. According to Tonak, most government committees have a student position.

Some issues that students could see their opinions being heard include transportation, safety and things to do off of campus, Volquardsen said.

Reed echoes much of what Volquardsen believes are issues that local government could impact for students.

“Our responsibilities are to make sure there’s a great off-campus life, we want to make sure they had a great experience in the town if they go out for the night or if they live off campus that they become part of the community,” Reed said.

On an individual level, many students say that if they had more time that they would be more politically engaged with their local government.

“I think [students should be more politically involved], obviously we’re taking up a big chunk of their population and taking up a lot of what they have to offer so it’s only right to help the community grow for the better,” Gale said.

Similarly, some students also believe that because SDSU makes up such a large population of Brookings that they, too, should have an equal say as long-time residents do.

“I feel that the city does have a big role with what goes on around campus…[so] I definitely feel like we should be more engaged because we make such a large impact on the community and we boost that population by thousands, for most of the year we’re here,” Volquardsen said.

Tonak believes that students should also be active in their government to be a part of the community.

“I’ve always been involved and I think that everybody should be because it’s going to affect them,” Tonak said. “If you don’t take an active role in it you can’t complain about the decisions being made. Everyone has the option for their voice to be heard, and I think our generation is doing a great job of that.”

Robinson agreed that students’ political actions can have an impact on the future on the community and school.

“In general, students should become more involved in local government because they’re setting up the future structure of what their city will be like,” Robinson said, “so what they do and say has an impact on the college.”