Pastor Center teaches students how to make a difference at the local level by engaging voters

Several stickers that read "I voted" laid out on a table.

Photo courtesy Element 5/Unsplash


All politics is local, goes the famous axiom. Arizona State University students who engage voters through the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service know the meaning of the phrase well.

Since its founding in 2015 with a $1 million grant from the late former U.S. Rep. of Arizona Ed Pastor upon his retirement from Congress, the Pastor Center has helped students learn how to become politically involved citizens at the most basic levels, both on campus and off.

The Pastor Center worked with Changemaker Central @ ASU, Associated Students of ASU and the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program to create the ASU Civic Engagement Coalition. The center and the coalition coordinate efforts to teach fellow students and others how to gain access to information about civic issues, how to voice their concerns about them and how to register to vote.

The Andrew Goodman Foundation funds the AGF Vote Everywhere Ambassadors. These students at ASU and at other universities and colleges throughout the country conduct voter outreach on campuses and in the larger community, and work to eliminate obstacles to voting many student voters face.

Sixty-five percent of ASU’s 18- to 21-year-old student voters cast ballots last year, up 17 percentage points from 48% in 2016, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, ASU News reported in November 2021. Pastor Center Executive Director Alberto Olivas said then the significant increase was encouraged by the efforts of the Civic Engagement Coalition’s volunteers.

The center is one of 25 university-based public service institutes that participate in the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, begun at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

The Pastor Center is also home to the Spirit of Service Scholars, students from all academic disciplines “who are passionate about public service leadership and advocacy and are actively involved in promoting awareness and engagement related to a range of community change and public policy issues.”

Olivas said funds raised for the Spirit of Service Scholars program go directly to funding scholarships for the scholars to learn how to work together on social and political topics they care most about.

“They learn by doing the work of public engagement and advocacy on topics that they pick each year,” Olivas said. “Year after year, this community-funded program turns out powerful advocates and public service leaders that are already making a difference today, and will long into the future.”

Alberto Olivas, Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Policy, Watts College, Arizona State University

Alberto Olivas, executive director of the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Policy. Photo courtesy ASU

Two May 2021 ASU graduates and former Goodman Ambassadors who worked on signing up student voters expressed satisfaction with how much they learned from participating at the Pastor Center.

Ayesha Ahsan, who earned Bachelor of Science degrees in economics and sociology, is now a first-year law student at Boston College. She praised Olivas and the center’s program director, Jacqueline Sandoval, for enriching her public service experience.

“The Pastor Center was instrumental in my work promoting civic engagement at ASU. Through the mentorship of Alberto Olivas and Jackie Sandoval, I was given access to resources in the form of funding, professional development opportunities and institutional support,” Ahsan said. “These resources were foundational in achieving the university-wide change we experienced. 

“Further, as a Spirit of Service Scholar, I was provided with focused mentorship in my goals of a career in law, and I was able to explore various paths to contribute to public service. I would not be where I am today without the support of the Pastor Center. It helped me home in on my passion for public service and led me to pursue a law degree to practice in public interest eventually,” Ahsan said. 

Cyrus Commissariat, now a first-year student at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Evanston, Illinois, said his experience with the Pastor Center gave him insights about public policy that have helped him in law school. He credited Sandoval with playing a key role.

"My time at ASU was so enriched by working with the Pastor Center. Jackie leveraged the full breadth and depth of her connections in state government to advance our initiatives,” Commissariat said. “We attended the opening day at the state Capitol and got meetings with key policymakers who listened to the unique concerns students have in voting. The mentorship and investment that Jackie provided was crucial to my success in law school, and I am eternally grateful that she and the center invested so heavily in me."

Olivas said the center and the Watts College-based Morrison Institute for Public Policy have recently completed a project identifying obstacles and challenges for students as voters. Students involved in the project gave input on recommendations and strategies to help increase the likelihood that students will cast ballots in future elections.

“We worked on figuring out things that were helpful for students, resources and strategies that make it more likely for students to participate as voters,” Olivas said.

Important areas the two centers researched, Olivas said, included learning what sources of voter information students go to the most, and finding any specific challenges to the process of involvement — obtaining voter identification or proof of citizenship, for example — that might impede a student’s participation at the polls.

Regarding voter information, Olivas said he was surprised to find today’s college students don’t go to sources many expect: celebrities, for example.

“They’re not relying on celebrity opinions, but they’re not going to traditional news sources either,” Olivas said. “They are, however, consciously tuned into what’s happening in the state and nation; they want to be involved, they’re not burned out.”

Many of today’s college students see members of Generation X and the Baby Boomer generation as having, in a way, “given up on fighting the good fight in politics, social change and the environment,” Olivas said. “They’re not counting on us anymore. They want to do it themselves, without anyone telling them what to do, figuring out new ways to make change.”

The center is planning two events for later in the spring 2022 semester:

  • Student voters will learn about possible effects of election-related bills before the Arizona Legislature at a March 17 workshop that will include speakers Will Gaona, legislative affairs director for the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, and Caroline Smith, senior program manager at the Andrew Goodman Foundation.
  • Out-of-state students will learn options for registering to vote either in Arizona or in their home states, and how that choice might affect financial aid opportunities, at a March 24 workshop.

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