Jennifer Lambert thought she wanted to be a nurse.
Then the Parkland school shooting in Florida happened and she watched thousands of young people march for gun control in Washington, D.C., and participated in a walkout at her high school in New Jersey. That was 2018, when national politics were extremely polarized amid Donald Trump’s presidency.
Lambert decided to major in political science instead at Villanova University, which reports a 37% increase in political science majors since 2019.
“I definitely think it has to do with the state of our national politics and how divided it has become,” said Lambert, of Fanwood, N.J. “It was hard for a lot of people to escape politics in the news cycle. Not being able to … is a big reason why we decided to study it.”
This spring, 328 students are majoring in the field, up from 238 in fall 2019, said Marcus Kreuzer, chair of Villanova’s political science department. The department hasn’t seen such a surge in majors since 9/11, he said. Other local schools queried haven’t seen the same rise. Drexel reports a small uptick; it also notes a 20% increase this year in applications for politics majors. Numbers at the University of Pennsylvania have remained relatively steady.
Nationally, the number of bachelor’s degrees in political science and government at U.S. colleges has climbed from 33,955 in 2015-16 to 36,715 in 2018-19, an 8% increase, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Students are doing more than studying the topic. Lambert, now a junior, has written a book, Voter Z, about political activism among her peers nationwide; it’s to be released this month.
Other students are running for local office — and winning. Lauren Sum, a Villanova senior, was elected in November to the school board in Park Ridge, N.J., where she graduated less than four years ago. Jacob Pride, a junior political science major at East Stroudsburg University, was just 19 in 2019 when he was elected as a township supervisor in Monroe County. Now, Pride, one of about two dozen Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2015) students Lambert interviewed for her book, knows two other students running for school board seats.
“There’s an increasing awareness that politics is not just an abstract thing that happens [in] some faraway place but it is something that affects people’s lives,” Kreuzer said.
Some students were motivated by Barack Obama’s presidency, he said, while others were interested in law school and wanted to serve their country. Some wanted to be involved in social justice issues and were spurred by national politics. And for the latest group, the racial unrest and the pandemic have played roles, he said.
“It became this existential battle for the soul of America or the future of America,” he said.
Kamil Vickers, 20, a sophomore from Newark, N.J., wants to see more representation of African Americans, like him, in government.
“I hope to represent the underrepresented in our country,” said Vickers, who plans to attend law school and perhaps run for Congress one day.
Vickers, who marched in Washington after the Parkland shootings, said his generation has watched the world change in unprecedented ways and it has made them stronger.
“We are a group of fearless leaders,” he said.
Natalie Christopoul, 21, a junior from Franklin Lakes, N.J., said she wants to reduce political polarization.
“We need to relearn what being a liberal or a conservative means and understand how harmful social media can be in becoming educated voters,” she wrote in an email to Kreuzer, explaining why she majored in political science.
Social media doesn’t help people understand the other side; it only inflames differences, she said.
“Nobody is able to respect the other side,” she said.
She would like to create a club at Villanova that would allow people with varying views to discuss issues civilly.
Sum, 22, a communication and Spanish major, was part of an alumni group in her hometown school district last summer that began discussing the need for a more culturally sensitive curriculum and policies.
“We were hoping to push for more diverse reading lists, more diverse history lessons, more faculty of color and mental health support for students of color as well,” she said.
When there was only one candidate for three open seats, she ran as a write-in. With the help of a friend, she conducted a largely social media campaign from her on-campus residence at Villanova.
“One thing I stand for is ensuring that students know they are more than capable of what they think they are capable of,” she said. “They are never too young to be going after change in decisions that concern them.”
She attends meetings virtually for now but intends to move home after graduation while working at an internship in New York City.
Pride, the East Stroudsburg student, said his interest in political science began when he was 8 and George W. Bush sent his father, who was in the Army, to Afghanistan.
“I wanted to understand why,” he said.
He is a commuter student and lives in nearby Smithfield Township, a 7,500-resident community in the Poconos, where he became a supervisor in January 2020. He ran because he was concerned there wasn’t enough housing and economic development in the township to keep young people in the area.
“I felt with a younger perspective perhaps it was possible we could keep more of them here and help move the area forward,” said Pride, a Democrat and board chair, whose two fellow supervisors are in their 70s.
He had campaigned on livestreaming supervisors meetings and updating the website to allow for more transparency.
“I didn’t think at the time what would really get it going and give it momentum was a pandemic,” said Pride, who earns $2,500 as a supervisor and additional salary for serving as the township’s digital specialist and parks coordinator.
Pride balances his supervisor responsibilities with his course work and still makes time for a social life and girlfriend, he said. His supervisor job is really another learning experience, he said.
Kimberly S. Adams, an East Stroudsburg political science professor, said her department expects students to become active in politics. Pride wasn’t the first student to run for office.
“We’re trying to create an environment where that becomes the norm,” she said. “We don’t care, Democrat or Republican, just go and be that change you want to see.”
Adams lives in Smithfield Township and couldn’t have been happier when Pride knocked on her door while campaigning.
“I told him I was going to vote for him,” she said.
He took a class she teaches while he was running and gave students important insight into his experience as a candidate, she said.
Lambert, who interviewed Generation Z members nationally about their political beliefs, their voting habits, and the politicians who inspired them, said writing the book has given her a new perspective on her generation.
“I view my peers as change-makers, activists, and really people who are transforming our political system every day with their actions,” she said. “There are some positive reforms that this generation can make once they come into positions of power.”