Student political leaders set positive example

In a heated political climate, Ariana Henderson and Andrew Kurtz play it cool by demonstrating respect and civility.

Henderson is a progressive Democrat. Kurtz is a Republican. They are each involved in their respective student political groups on campus. You might expect them to dislike or even disrespect one another, but you'd be wrong. The two are actually good friends, and in the midst of a presidential election campaign, are a good example of how differing parties can get along and work together for a common goal.

Henderson is an Altoona native and a political science major while Kurtz is from nearby Roaring Spring, dual majoring in political science and security and risk analysis. Both are nontraditional students: Henderson is 28 and Kurtz, 23, is a veteran. The two share political science classes and don't see eye-to-eye on gun control, economics, tax plans or the role of government in everyday life. But there are many things on which they do agree, whether it's a political issue, a campaigning issue or simple interaction between opposing parties.

One such topic on which they share an opinion is the surprises the current presidential election campaign has brought. "I think the shocker is that Bernie's actually putting on a show, that people are coming out for him," stated Henderson. "We knew New Hampshire was going to be a win for him, but I think he's putting up a bigger fight that anyone expected." Kurtz agrees. "It's surprising to see that political outsiders are gaining momentum. I think that's the biggest part of both sides in this campaign. People on both sides are sick of Washington. So they're voting for Donald Trump, they're voting for Bernie Sanders. And I think that's shocking a lot of people."

Both Henderson and Kurtz say they've seen some attacks between candidates and anticipate it will only get worse throughout the rest of the primaries and beyond. They each think that such assaults have practically become an expected campaigning tactic and way for opposing sides to interact with each other. They cite an example from a recent debate in which the two participated on campus.

"It was a packed house, and they were seeing the two of us joking and laughing beforehand and were like, 'oh, they're laughing now, but wait, they'll tear each other's heads off.' People were waiting for a fight or an argument. I think they were disappointed they didn't get a gladiator exhibition," said Henderson. "One kid said to me, 'next time you guys need to argue more,'" recaled Kurtz. "I was like, 'what?!' I think Ariana and I are outliers. We're completely the opposite but we come together with political civility." Both believe that is a much-needed thing when it comes to politics. They don't fight, they don't attack. They listen to one another and try to find that common ground. "Arguing isn't productive, really," states Henderson. "No one will solve anything by arguing. I already know Andy and I aren't going to agree on everything. All we can do is try to come up with compromises where we can. I feel like people get really hung up and personal about politics." "You can't do that, you can't get personal," adds Kurtz. "To attack on a personal level is just very disrespectful and it doesn't get you anywhere."

Even though they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Henderson and Kurtz have the same goal when it comes to students at Penn State Altoona. And that's to get them to show up at the polls on election day. The first step is to generate interest.

Henderson said, "It's hard because I think our generation is a very distracted one. And I don't think they realize how much stuff affects them. For example, a couple of years ago the interest rate was raised from 3.4 to 4.4 something on student loans - all these kids who will be graduating, they weren't paying attention, but when they see $200 more in payments, they're going to realize they should have been." But Kurtz pointed out, "On the other side of things, a lot of students wonder why they should vote when it seems like nothing changes and their voice doesn't matter. So it's difficult, but you have to keep having the discussion."

Both the Democratic and Republican groups on campus are working hard to offer activities and events to get students involved. Each group had students collecting signatures to get their candidates on the ballot. There have been a series of debates and voter drives, as well as functions aimed at helping students understand how they can vote while away from home. They're bringing in speakers from respective parties in Blair County and trying to organize a trip to Washington, D.C. "We want students to come out and vote," said Kurtz. "We, as a millennial generation, are important. We're so large. And I don't think young students understand that we get to choose who our next president is."

Another hurdle is making sure students get accurate information about candidates and their platforms. Negative tactics and smear campaigns often get in the way of this along with social media. "Candidates are getting such exposure through so many outlets and they can run these negative things or just underhandedly take stabs at people rather than focusing on their own platforms," says Henderson. Kurtz adds, "And with social media, everybody has a voice now. Anyone can make a Twitter handle or Tumblr and have 200 followers, and those 200 people are reading and sharing what could very well be inaccurate information stemming from just one person."

"It can be tedious, Henderson admited, but the best way to really get a feel for the candidates is to look at their voting records. There are several independent, unbiased websites like VoteSpotter that will compile those records and show how legislatures voted on every topic. Other sites like PolitiFact rate the accuracy of claims of elected officials and others involved in American politics.

Henderson and Kurtz are leading by example by being friends, by being respectful, and working together for the common goals of voter turnout and creating the best America. "I just want people to be involved," says Henderson. "I want them to care." "And I want to see political civility," adds Kurtz. "I don't want to see anyone beaten down for what they believe in."

Last Updated March 07, 2016