On Tuesday, November 4th, history occurred. The United States of America elected its first ever African American President, Barack H. Obama. The election, driven by a record turnout, is an event of landmark symbolism and will herald the beginning of a series of changes in American politics that will have a significant impact on the United States and the world at large.
Looking back these past few weeks, I realize how incredible the experience of witnessing this first-hand has been. From the perspective of an international student staying in the country for the very first time, it’s been amazing to be here when the whole country is so charged up with activity. The MIT community has been buzzing with the same enthusiasm and excitement.
When I first arrived on campus in August, the race for the Democratic nomination was still fresh in everyone’s mind. There were disappointed Clinton supporters on campus, and those on Obama’s side were celebrating the overcoming of the first hurdle and hoping for more successes in the future.
After a few slow weeks, the excitement gradually rose as Election Day neared. For every presidential debate, without fail, there were a large number of study breaks by different student groups. A significant proportion of students made a conscious effort to take out time from their hectic schedules to watch the two candidates discuss and contrast their positions on various issues.
After each debate, there were elaborate discussions, as well as close critiquing, of the statements made by each candidate. Though both sides had their fair share of supporters, with the passage of time, Obama seemed to prove himself, assuming the role of an icon, a catalyst of change, and took an evident lead in the polls.
The Tech, with the Undergraduate Association, organized a voter registration drive to register new voters and provide absentee applications ballots for those registered in other states. In the one hour I spent at the registration booth, I witnessed a flood of students coming and registering to vote. The enthusiasm of students and community members of all stripes to participate in the process was clearly evident.
Many efforts were made by other groups as well. As MIT’s main focus has been science and technology initiatives, the energy debate, organized by the MIT Energy Club and the MIT Energy Initiative, was very closely observed by the entire community. The MIT Debate Team had a special debate demonstration round, to show students what, in their view, an ideal presidential debate should look like.
As Election Day approached, everyone was urged to go ahead and cast their vote, and many different techniques were employed to publicize the event. The Simmons Hall LED displayed “Vote Tuesday” and many e-mails were sent out to mailing lists to exhort people to go vote. Election night featured innumerable gatherings where people watched as the polls progressed, and finally celebrated the great victory.
I come from a place marked by apathy towards the political process. There is a widespread philosophy that both sides will probably do the same things, and thus it doesn’t really matter which side really wins. This can be seen particularly among students. Even after turning 18, hardly anyone cares to vote until they reach a stage when the outcomes directly affect them, such as after they begin work. The passion to elect the right person, make an informed decision, and participate in the democratic process, is greatly lacking. Witnessing this passion in everyone around me was truly amazing.
In my opinion, any claims that most MIT students are way too engrossed in their own lives and as a result become oblivious to what’s happening around them, are untrue. When it matters, they’re involved, and they proved this by playing the role of responsible citizens.
Many people have told me that the zeal in this year’s election has been a consequence of the setbacks in the last presidential term, along with an urgent need for change. However, regardless of the reason, it’s been fantastic.