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Polygence student Vikram publishes Op-Ed on youth voter turnout
Vikram is a rising junior from Menlo Park, CA who worked with his mentor Chang, an MPhil candidate in Political Theory at Oxford, to explore political polarization and civic engagement in the U.S. today. Through guided reading in political theory and lively in-session discussions, Vikram fleshed out ideas for two Op-Eds. One, advocating for the de-politicization of racial justice, is being published on the Santa Clara County Democratic Party’s website. The other, co-authored with his mentor, is published on CNN’s Michael Smerconish independent news outlet Smerconish. Vikram was extremely impressed by Polygence’s ability to match him with a mentor with his precise interests, as well as the way the sessions were naturally guided by what he found most interesting. You can hear more about Vikram’s Polygence experience in the interview below.
How did you become interested in politics and government in the first place?
I started Model United Nations in seventh grade, and that gave me kind of an overview of the really broad world of government and how it works. Then in eighth grade, I joined a youth commission that I'm still on today that advises our local Board of Supervisors on policy related to youth issues. I feel like that's what got me really interested in politics, because it gave me a more in-depth view of local government and how policy works. From there, I've just been trying to find ways to pursue that passion, because government and politics is a really broad area, and there's a lot of different aspects which have an impact on our daily lives.
What were you hoping to get out of Polygence, distinct from these other experiences you’ve had?
So I've always been really interested in political theories, and I've had all these ideas about political theory. I always enjoy talking to my friends about all these ideas and how I feel about what I'm reading in the news, but I feel like I've never had a way to back up my ideas with research, or really pursue my ideas in-depth. Polygence gave me a way to do that, through writing op-eds and through learning how to research different political theories.
So you think Polygence was different from these other extracurriculars and internships you've done?
Yeah, so my other experiences within government and politics were great, like Model UN and my internship with the Democratic Party, but they were all rigidly structured. With Polygence, it was completely tailored to me, so I was able to delve into the topics that I really enjoy. Whereas with Model UN and my internship, what I did was subject to what the organization was doing. It was really great to be able to work one-on-one and have a very hands-on experience with Polygence, and I think that is why I was able to produce work that I’m really proud of.
“With Polygence, it was completely tailored to me, so I was able to delve into the topics that I really enjoy.”
What did you do during sessions with Chang? How did your project evolve?
Chang helped me research a bunch of different topics across government and politics, especially political polarization. I started out reading some research papers on the subject. There's this one Harvard Law professor named Cass Sunstein who published a prominent paper on group polarization that I based a lot of the arguments around in my first op-ed. From there, I let my mind wander, and Chang would provide me with readings related to whatever I found interesting from the previous readings. We also read some old political theory, from Platonic dialogues and James Madison, which was honestly pretty hard to dissect, but Chang helped me with that. We had a lesson completely focused on dissecting those pieces, and then we had a really interesting conversation about how really ancient thinkers’ ideas still play a role in today's world.
What made you choose to write Op-Eds for your final project?
I'd never written an op-ed before. I’d never even delved into the world of journalism, but I feel like it's a great way to express my views. It was great to talk to Chang and really speak my mind honestly, and learn how to express my ideas about political theory. But for my project, I wanted to be able to share those ideas with more people, and it was really cool to learn how to be able to express my ideas in a clear manner.
“...Chang was not only a great mentor, but we also developed a friendship over our 10 sessions, and we're planning on staying in touch.”
How is your mentor Chang different from your other teachers or tutors?
Well, first of all, I feel like Chang was not only a great mentor, but we also developed a friendship over our 10 sessions, and we're planning on staying in touch. I feel like what separates him from a teacher is not just that he's teaching me stuff that I specifically enjoy, but also that we were able to really have a conversation. It didn't really feel like he was teaching me—it felt more like he was guiding me. He’d say, I think you'd enjoy these three readings, and then I'd read them, and then next session we'd have a really long conversation. He always played devil’s advocate, which was interesting for me, because I could always have a back and forth. It was super great having conversations with him, and being free to talk about whatever was interesting to me, which I never really got the opportunity to do with teachers.
What was one of the most intense debates you had with Chang in your sessions?
So in one of our last sessions, we were looking at a recently published Op-Ed in the New York Times called “Send in the Troops.” It was written by US Senator Tom Cotton, and it was a really controversial piece around government violence against protesters. He was actually advocating for more violence against protesters, and afterwards, the NYT received a ton of backlash. Some editors from the NYT resigned because of it, and they ended up having to publish an editor's note attached to the Op-Ed, saying that a bunch of his claims are false and inflammatory. So Chang and I had a really interesting conversation about whether that piece should actually be published. I was on the fence, so it was really interesting to kind of go back and forth between the two views. When you read the piece, it makes you feel like it should be banned instantly, but perhaps that’s because it’s hard to take my personal politics and views out of it and see it more from a free speech perspective, like should they actually publish this? So that was one of our most interesting conversations.
You did this project at a time when political polarization was fierce. So are your pieces theoretical? Or how, if at all, did you incorporate current events?
Chang and I were having these conversations during the 2020 presidential race, while national protests were going on, and during Covid-19. So obviously, all these issues really bring out polarization in America. Anybody can open Twitter and scroll to Donald Trump's comments, and it's pretty obvious that polarization is very prevalent. I knew I wanted to research polarization, but the prominence of racial justice and the surprising amount of controversy surrounding it made me want to focus on how polarization is impacting racial justice. It was the same with the civic engagement Op-Ed: I knew I wanted to talk about youth engagement and how voting was so important in youth, but Chang came up with the idea of tying it to the 2020 election. There was actually a ton of research that just came out that showed how youth are going to be super important in this year's election, and so I felt like it was a great idea to write an Op-Ed on the research that had just come out.
"...try to be as specific as possible with your topic...I could spend an entire year just studying polarization and civic engagement. So no topic is too specific!"
How has Polygence influenced your thinking about your future?
Even before Polygence, I wanted to go into some form of public office in the future. But Polygence definitely affirmed that belief. Being able to delve deep into the world of politics and to learn more about the theory behind all the problems that are going on in our political system made me want to do something about those problems a lot more. It was also really cool getting into the world of Op-Eds. Before wrapping up, Chang and I discussed some ideas for future op-eds that I could write. So not only did Polygence affirm that I want to do something related to politics in general, but it also got me super interested in Op-Eds, which is not something I had considered before.
Do you have advice for anyone who is about to start a Polygence project?
I would say: try to be as specific as possible with your topic and what you want to research. When I came into Polygence, I said I was interested in polarization and civic engagement, but I also thought that was too specific. I wasn't sure if there was going to be a mentor that actually focused on those exact areas, and then I was super surprised and happy that there was! I didn't know if the topic was broad enough to cover the whole ten sessions, but after the first few sessions I was like, okay, there's a ton of stuff here. Like I could spend an entire year just studying polarization and civic engagement. So no topic is too specific!
You can read more of Vikram’s writing on his Medium site here.