Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of seven collaborative reflections by students and faculty in the Honors College at Southern Oregon University (SOU) participating in the The Democracy Project (DP), a comprehensive international examination of democracy that includes its historical evolution, the role of minority groups, and concepts such as citizenship, cultural assimilation, equality, freedom, imperialism, nationalism, security and sovereignty. 

We began our first evening in Vienna with a walking tour of the old city center. Between the main square and the third district sits Stadtpark (The City Park), home of a famous monument to Johann Strauss and several public art pieces. Walking through the park, instead of noticing these famous landmarks, we were instead drawn to the scene of several dozen children flooding the walking paths with their eyes fixed on the familiar screen we recognized as PokemonGo. We all laughed at the phenomenon that was all too familiar to us, especially when one member of our group was nearly run down by a man who was staring at the phone he had affixed between the handlebars of his bicycle. Clearly the stereotype of millennials being wedded to their cell phones is not just a occurrence in the United States. 

However, one shouldn’t assume that millennial spend all their time taking selfies and catching cartoon creatures. Actually, young people are engaging more and more in hot-button political issues on Facebook, online-news forums, Twitter and more. Social media has had an unprecedented effect on democracy in recent years, prominently dating back to Arab Spring in 2011. During the week of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the total number of tweets around the world about political change in Egypt ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day. We see the power echoed in the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which relies on social media to gain traction in the mainstream media and is ultimately becoming one of the decade’s most significant political issues. 

Let’s not forget the presidential candidates. It doesn’t take statistics to see that social media is driving this year’s elections. At the time of this writing, Donald Trump’s tweet about global warming being invented as a hoax by the Chinese has been retweeted 97,720 times. Democracy is no longer a process that only takes place at the ballot box, but is now an integral part of our social interactions and daily life. This allows more members of society — particularly historically marginalized groups — to participate in political discourse across a variety of platforms. This has changed the game for political campaigning, and we now see a greater push for legislation and change coming directly from the people. 

According to a census by UNESCO in 2012, 50.5 percent of the world’s 7 billion people are under the age of 30. Of these billions of people, nearly 90 percent live in areas with developing economies. For these populations, participation in democracy is vital to growth and continued social progress — and the people know it. Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa and India have all had the world’s highest voter turnout in recent national elections, ranging from 67 to 86 percent. 

We see much lower voter turnout in the United States (57.5 percent) — and even less in Europe — where young voters are generally apathetic and distrustful of a system they feel they have little power to change. They feel that the issues don’t affect them, the problems are too big to solve, or their participation doesn’t matter. Despite social media’s ability to let young people in these countries voice their opinions, getting millennials to take the step from sharing a viral video to mailing in a ballot proves difficult.

This year, I have heard so many people say, “I’m not a political person, but ….” Perhaps they have a limited or antiquated definition of “politics,” which really is just, “activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government.” Whether we are conscious of it or not, we make political decisions all the time in terms of where we live, what we buy and to what degree we educate ourselves and our young people. Education is the solution that dissolves fear, apathy and cynicism. 

I have found that this is the trend we are trying to break with the Democracy Project at Southern Oregon University. When students are given the opportunity to learn about, share and debate complex democratic issues with adults and peers, they are more likely to develop ownership and dedication to the political system.

I, for one, know that the conversations with political leaders, foreign-service officials, United States embassy officials, journalists, and university professors from both Europe and India are experiences I will carry with me throughout the remainder of my college education and into my future classroom. 

“If we are to reach real peace in this world, we shall have to begin with children” (Mahatma Gandhi).

Micaela Saling, a senior business administration major with a marketing concentration who is planning to teach high-school social studies, is an Honors College scholar at Southern Oregon University.