University of California President Janet Napolitano leads a discussion Nov. 1 in UCI’s Political Science 121C course. Her key question: “How do we get the youth out to vote?” Steve Zylius / UCI

UCI students in Political Science 121C examine how the American electoral system works and how voters evaluate parties, candidates and issues. And who better to address these topics than University of California President Janet Napolitano?

The former governor of Arizona and secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration popped into the class during a Nov. 1 campus visit to discuss the importance of participating in the political process through the polls.

Napolitano started the conversation with a pressing question: “How do we get the youth out to vote?”

The class response? Make college students feel more involved. Most politicians don’t advocate for youth-focused issues such as student loans and higher education, but if these issues were at the top of party platforms, students would be much more invested in voting.

With so many elections razor-blade close, the youth vote is key – in recent national elections fewer than half of California college students go to the polls. In advance of the 2018 midterm election, UC leaders have been especially active in get-out-the-vote efforts, supporting registration drives and related activities on all campuses.

The UC Student Association, through its UCweVote campaign, has created an online tool with which students can register, get ballot information and pledge to vote. It’s also looking to boost turnout on Election Day; students who text “WE VOTE” to 562-850-1721 can access resources on how to find their polling location, drop off a mail-in ballot, etc. UCSA has set an ambitious goal of reaching 100,000 students, equivalent to half of all UC undergraduates eligible to vote.

Back in class, enthusiastic students peppered Napolitano with questions ranging from ones about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and how she worked across party lines as governor of Arizona to her thoughts on today’s political climate.

“I’ve never experienced a country so divided,” she told them. “Right now with our biggest issues – climate change and immigration – we seem incapable of having any discussion. Change can only be made when voters demand it.”

Students appreciated the opportunity to talk with the UC president.

“She was upfront and honest, and it was great to hear how she feels,” said Vaibhav Gowda, a senior majoring in political science and economics.

“It really was awesome,” added Jorge Gutierrez, a senior sociology major. “She demonstrated that she cares.”