The following article is the first installment of GW Serves, a monthly series featuring students who are living out the university’s mission to build up public service leaders and active citizens to create a better world for all.
By Nick Erickson
Even as a self-proclaimed introvert, George Washington University sophomore Vidya Muthupillai has long felt no choice but to act externally when it comes to civic engagement.
Her first memory of it was in fourth grade, when she badgered her school’s administration to restart a garden and pause deforestation projects because, as she put it, “I was just obsessed with trees.”
A few years later, during the 2016 election cycle, Muthupillai canvassed for political candidates and spoke with people she both knew and didn’t who were 18 or older about the importance of voting. Despite being a first-year student in high school and ineligible to vote at the time, she thought too much was at stake to do nothing—even if it meant dabbling outside her comfort zone and talking to strangers.
“If you don’t speak for yourself, other people will speak for you,” said Muthupillai, who is double majoring in political science with a public policy focus and international affairs with a concentration in international environment while also minoring in sustainability. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to say ‘oh, it is what it is and there’s nothing I can do about it because this is just the system.’ There should be a sense of responsibility, and young people should take responsibility.”
She took that responsibility seriously before she could legally cast a ballot, and she sure won’t be quiet now that she is of voting age. Muthupillai is continuing to lead the charge so voices who also seek change are amplified and is currently working as a GW Votes ambassador. Her role there is to help students find right resources to both get to the polls and make informed voting decisions once there.
"If you don't speak for yourself, others will speak for you."
This fall alone—with the midterm elections looming in November, she is volunteering at events, voting drives and educational forums. She is assisting in National Voter Registration Day, National Voter Education Week (Oct. 3-7) and Vote Early Day on Oct. 28.
Most recently, she co-led a Welcome Day of Service site where first-year students wrote 1,000 letters—often containing personal stories about issues that are on the ballot—to eligible voters residing in swing states encouraging those residents to exercise their constitutional right.
It’s an important task on a college campus as younger voters don’t turn out the way their predecessors do. Even with improved youth turnout in 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that voters aged 65 to 74 had a 76% turnout, while those 18 to 24 were at 51.4%.
Muthupillai believes there are several reasons for that gap, including a lack of consistency among states as far as registration rules and absentee/mail-in ballots. Because many GW students come from outside D.C., GW Votes is countering this by putting out detailed brochures running down important things to note from the 10 states that make up 71% of the GW population.
Muthupillai, whose home state of Texas has recently passed legislation restricting the voting process and narrowing local control of elections, pointed out one of her friends from a different state could be advising with the best of intentions but giving out incorrect information.
“That’s why organizations like GW Votes play a central role in campus life, because hopefully we make things slightly less confusing,” Muthupillai said.
GW has also once again partnered with TurboVote, a nonpartisan online resource for students.
Not only is GW Votes, which is part of the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, aiming to make the process easier with bare bones initiatives such as providing free stamps for students who will be voting absentee or by mail, but they also aim to create a community and unity among their peer voters.
“There's less solidarity if you're filling out your ballot alone,” Muthupillai said. “I think one of the roles of GW Votes is to build that civic culture.”
GW Votes is hoping to build off momentum in the 2020 presidential election, which saw a 12% voter turnout increase from 2016. According to the Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, GW had a 69% voting rate, which was higher than the national average of 66%. The university also received a Silver Seal from the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge.
But Muthupillai believes GW’s needle should move past “above national average” and to “campus to be modeled after,” especially given the university’s proximity to the offices and residence that house the very people elected.
“GW is very much where people look to when they see what participation should look like, being a school in the heart of the nation’s capital,” she said. “There is that sort of this expectation of our campus to be civically engaged.”
This is a time, she said, when actions need to speak the loudest.