National and regional politicians looking to hone their skills in the cyber world of election campaigns could learn a thing or two from the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) students who spent the end of their spring semester stumping for votes online. The cast of new leaders who were just elected as the 2020-21 CSM Student Government Association (SGA) officers will tell you they felt very connected to their constituents – almost too connected – as they navigated CSM’s first virtual student election process via a phone app.
“At one point, the students’ interaction on the CSM phone app was so busy, that I had to turn off the notifications just to get my thoughts together,” said recently elected Leonardtown Campus SGA President Joan Popoola, of Great Mills.
Leonardtown Campus SGA Vice President Kristine Williams agreed. “I didn’t know how to turn the notifications off,” the Leonardtown resident shared. “So I deleted the app, took a break, and then reloaded it to keep campaigning.”
As the coronavirus continues to redefine how community colleges stretch and bend to safeguard their commitment to learners and the workforce, students are playing a key role in helping maintain physical distancing, without compromising social interaction.
“These students moved from chatting it up in the student lounges to chatting it up on our CSM app, pretty quickly,” said CSM Executive Director of Student Life and Athletics Michelle Ruble. “From changing many of our courses mid-semester and deploying our professors online, to reexamining how we all can use technology to stay connected, our students have taught us as much about how to operate in remote environments, as we hope we’re teaching them.”
You won’t get an argument out of CSM nursing student and Waldorf resident Kia Smith, who was elected to serve as La Plata Campus SGA vice president.
“It was both shocking and funny to switch to a virtual environment in every respect,” said Smith, who added she was glad to help bridge the gap for faculty, staff and her fellow students who didn’t know how to use Zoom video conferencing software. “This has definitely been its own learning experience.”
“I was telling all the students (on the CSM app) to call me for help, too,” said Reanna Robinson, of Accokeek. The social sciences major won the position of La Plata Campus SGA secretary. “I felt like I was a conduit to the college.”
Analytics Prove the Point, Set a New Path
Sure enough, analytics show that students’ posts, comments and “likes” on the CSM app soared this spring compared to 2019’s election campaign period and three days of polling. During this spring’s elections, students’ posts were up 129 percent and ‘likes’ jumped a whopping 381 percent on the CSM app. During the three days of voting, the posts on the app jumped 70 percent and ‘likes’ increased 188 percent.
“We recognize that all of this activity was not just because of the elections,” acknowledged CSM Student Life Coordinator Melissa Chambers. “The students were adapting to a pandemic, the governor’s stay-at-home order and trying to stay in touch with their CSM friends and community every way they could. But it was pretty incredible to see so much participation and involvement with the elections move online so quickly.”
Chambers shared that when the college moved to remote operations in March, there was never a thought of postponing the student government elections which used to occur during CSM’s Spring Fling celebrations held on three of its four campuses every April. Spring Fling is an annual end-of-semester free event that boasts free food, games and give-aways.
“We needed our student officers in place to help us prepare for the fall semester and lead our student body through these uncharted times,” she said. “We needed to get busy and creative in our ongoing student activities because our student clubs are still very active.”
As for voter turnout, Chambers shared there was not a big difference in the number of votes, but there was a sizable difference in the assortment of the voters.
“The numbers were comparable,” she said. “But the cool thing about this year is that the students could vote for officers at all three campuses, and not just the one where they were attending Spring Fling. So, this effort helped us bring our vision of ‘one college’ to fruition, plus we heard from a wider variety of students. Those students who wouldn’t have made the face-to-face elections because of work, or those students who attend classes at night – they were all able to hear from their candidates on the CSM app and, in turn, vote for the first time.”
The old way of holding elections will remain a thing of the past, according to Chambers. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of doing online elections a long time ago,” she said.
CSM’s New Student Government Officers: “We’ll Get Through This Together”
CSM’s new SGA officers pivoted pretty quickly to move from posters on campus to graphics on an app, said La Plata Campus SGA President Kelsey Kluh.
“At times it was challenging, but at the same time, it was exciting and a fun experience overall,” said Kluh. “Our CSM team did a great job getting elections online so quickly and seamlessly. The CSM app was a natural alternative to our traditional Spring Fling campaign. It also was very helpful for allowing close contact with students and was an amazing space for interaction concerning the election.”
Prince Frederick Campus’ 2020-21 President George Southworth said he thinks students learned more about campus activities because of the online election.
“The students were more interactive and because we were campaigning on the CSM app, they learned more about what SGA does and how we work together for causes,” Southworth said.
When asked what advice they would give to someone running a virtual election campaign in the unprecedented times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the SGA officers expressed a shared theme of hope and togetherness.
“It can only get better from here,” said Huntingtown resident Jonathan Norris, who was elected as SGA representative-at-large. “We will all get through this together.”
“Remember we are all going through similar times,” said Leonardtown Campus’ new SGA Treasurer Kamille Cox. “We have to stick together to get what we want.”
You have to get comfortable with promoting yourself and what you stand for, shared Prince Frederick Campus Vice President Andre Walker. “Get your name out there.”
“I think it’s a lot of self-promotion,” agreed Southworth, “but, it’s also about showing your honest attributes rather than slinging mud to show the worst side of other candidates.”
Meet the Newly Elected 2020-21 SGA Officers
La Plata Campus:
President Kelsey Kluh, of La Plata
Vice President Kia Smith, of Waldorf
Secretary Reanna Robinson, of Accokeek
Representative-at-large Jonathan Norris, of Huntingtown
Representative-at-large Rachel Polk, of Great Mills
President Joan Popoola, of Great Mills
Vice President Kristine Williams, of Leonardtown
Treasurer Kamille Cox, of Lexington Park
Prince Frederick Campus
President George Southworth, of Hughesville
Vice President Andres Walker, of Prince Frederick
Treasurer Sofia Walker, of Prince Frederick
To learn more about the varied student life opportunities at CSM including SGA, student clubs, activities and events and athletics, visit https://www.csmd.edu/student-life/.