Harvard focus group connects Elon students with peers during third presidential debate

Five Elon students were among a group of 25 brought together by Harvard University's Institute of Politics to discuss their views during the last debate. 

Heading into the first presidential election he will be able to vote in, first-year Elon student Jacob Sebiri thought he had made his choice — Donald Trump. 

Five Elon students joined 20 other university students during the third presidential debate as part of an online focus group. 
But revelations about the Republican nominee during the past several weeks cast that decision in doubt, and moved Sebiri back into the realm of the undecided voter. “I wouldn’t have called myself a Trump supporter,” Sebiri said. “I was going to vote for him because he represented the Republican Party. But I’m now officially undecided and I don’t know who I’m going to vote for.”

That’s Sebiri’s assessment the morning after the third and final debate in the 2016 presidential contest on Oct. 19, which Sebiri viewed with four fellow Elon students at Gray Pavilion, and discussed before and after with 20 other students from Harvard University, Ohio State University, Franklin & Marshall College and Howard University through an online focus group. The gathering was organized by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which coordinates the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, of which Elon and 26 other colleges and universities are a part. 

The National Campaign was formed in 2003 in response to a trend that saw college students becoming more involved in community service, but less engaged in the political process. Its mission is to promote engagement in electoral politics, help students pursue a career in public service and help build a foundation in civic education. 

And on Wednesday night, it gathered these 25 largely undecided young voters together to sort through the issues being discussed in the presidential election and help them make more informed decisions before they head to the polls on Nov. 8. Elon has made a concerted effort this election season to increase civic engagement, with watch events for each of the three debates that have drawn hundreds of students and other efforts revolving around the democratic process. 

Among the Elon contingent for the online focus group was Daniella Khoury, who said she leans right when it comes to economic policy, but leans far to the left on social issues. Unlike Sebiri, she’s remained undecided throughout the presidential election, and was hoping the final debate would help her decided. 

Unfortunately, Khoury said Thursday, she’s still undecided. 

“I feel like it’s just a giant mess, and I am very undecided,” said Khoury, a student in Professor Carrie Eaves’ Race to the White House political science class. “I am in a state of ambivalence about every candidate, and it’s getting worse as time goes on.”

But both Sebiri and Khoury, who responded to an invitation to participate by Eaves, said being part of Wednesday night’s focus group has helped them better understand how different people are approaching this decision or what the basis is for their opinions. Connected online through a Google Hangout before and after the debate, the group of Elon students was able to discuss various topics such as foreign policy, the economy and international refugees. Durind the debate, they traded messages online between schools. 

“Those discussions didn’t necessarily change my mind, but it helped me better understand other perspectives,” said Sebiri, who is in Eaves’ American Government class. 

Khoury said she was struck during the discussion when students at all schools were asked whether the election of Trump would tangibly affect their lives, and the students at Howard University, one of the top Historically black colleges and universities in the country, “without hesitation said, ‘Absolutely,’ That really highlights the racial tensions in the United States.”

Sebiri found the discussion with his fellow Elon students and those he connected with remotely to be more engaging than the one he saw during the debate. 

“I was hoping that the debate last night in general would tell me where I should go with my vote, and to be honest, it was the same as the first debate.” Sebiri said. “I really was hoping for a little more substantive talk (from the candidates).”