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If you’ve eaten lunch in Lobdell or the Kendall Food Court in the past few weeks, the following pattern of conversation may seem familiar to you: as you’re catching up with a friend, you overhear the next table loudly debating the latest Sarah Palin scandal. Amused, your friend pulls up a video montage of Barack Obama’s most recent slip-ups and the two of you start laughing over the mudslinging going on in the press. Soon, you realize the next table has been sucked in, and by the end of lunch the whole room is going.

MIT’s campus has never been known as the center of political activity, but the 2008 election has everyone riled up this year, and with good reason! Not only is this the first time most of the student body have had a say in the running of the country, but the entertaining, fun-filled spectacle that the media is providing has captured the imagination of even the most apathetic citizens.

The intense speculation has moved beyond idle curiosity and has been reinforced and reflected by student participation in many events on campus. The Economics Department hosted a panel on the financial crisis, which was even mentioned by President Susan Hockfield in her autumn Letter to the Community as recommended listening for the whole MIT community.

The Energy Initiative hosted a high-profile debate about both candidates’ energy policies and economics professor Jonathan Gruber gave a well-attended talk about healthcare policy last week. The halls have been plastered with election-related posters, including Poverty Week briefings on the candidates’ positions and advertisements for debate-watching parties that ended up hosting record turnouts.

The effort to get students more engaged in politics has been successful due to efforts both from the student body and the administration, and bodes well for the future of the United States. The continued success of this large, diverse nation relies on constant innovations in science and technology. We need energy, healthcare, the Internet, and strong military defense systems to improve our society and advance us into the 21st century.

The excitement that MIT feels about the four crucial years ahead shows how important our unique role is in shaping the future. People with deep scientific knowledge and a real commitment to moving our society forward can make a profound difference, no matter who our next president is. However, when the time comes for our generation to take leading roles in government, I believe MIT alumni will point to the 2008 election as one of their inspirations to labor in the pursuit of broad social change.

Manisha Padi ’10 is a member of the Forum on American Progress and a former Tech columnist.