Gen Z is no stranger to political upheaval. Born into a world grappling with major tectonic shifts in the domestic and international political landscapes, we’ve spent our formative years immersed in a culture reckoning with its checkered past, tumultuous present, and uncertain future. The news cycle has become so rife with period–defining bombshells that we’ve adapted, out of necessity, a sense of insulation from the world around us.

However, just because we, in our own tempestuous period of late adolescence, may be (candidly) exhausted from hearing about political emergencies, it doesn’t mean that the emergencies themselves stop coming. Many may feel like turning away from the political world when it gets overwhelming. But in summer of 2021, Annie Hait (C ‘23) felt a pull to get involved with Democrat Josh Shapiro’s campaign for governor

As a political research intern, she explains, “I came into the campaign knowing very little about what the governor's race was going to look like, I just knew that I was looking for a campaign to get involved with that had a candidate who aligned with my values.” Annie’s role in the campaign transformed when Shapiro’s daughter, Sophia Shapiro, reached out about outreach on Penn’s campus. 

Sophia started Students for Shapiro, an organization embedded within the campaign that seeks to engage college and high school students “who want to step up and take charge of getting out the vote on their campus, letting their community know what’s on the line in November,” Annie says. By the beginning of the 2022 school year, they managed to get the Penn chapter, one of about 50 across the state, off the ground in affiliation with Penn Dems. The connection between the two organizations has been crucial thanks to yellow tape within the university’s political club guidelines, one of the many intricacies within the university “bureaucracy” which Annie considers one of the foremost hurdles the club has faced. “Since we can’t use university resources,” she explains, “our way to interact with the university is facilitated through [Penn Dems].”

Photo courtesy of Annie Hait.

The Penn chapter has become a central node for the broad network of Students for Shapiro chapters. “When Josh comes to Philly, we’ve taken on the impetus of hosting him, because we’re the central location for all the Philly university chapters, and we have a pretty accessible campus,” Annie says. “We’ve had a lot of communication with the Drexel and Temple chapters because we’ve taken on hosting responsibilities, and they’ve been really great about mobilizing their campuses to attend our events.” One such event was in early September, when the Penn chapter hosted Austin Davis, Shapiro’s partner on the ticket running for lieutenant governor, for a talk and Q&A. The Drexel chapter of Students for Shapiro flocked to the event, epitomizing the sense of collective duty that has arisen in the hundreds of young people who have come out in throes to handle the on–the–ground voter outreach that the Shapiro campaign draws upon.

The way young people engage with the political sphere is ever–evolving, and even Annie, who studies PPE, found her own interest in politics taking an unexpected turn through her experience as a research intern for the campaign. She’s also majoring in Middle Eastern Studies, and thus has in the past found herself more academically drawn to international politics. However, “I’ve always been interested in domestic politics, and it’s fascinating to apply the theory of what I’m learning to real life, but it wasn’t something where I was ever like, ‘Oh, I want a future in campaign politics!’ That was never the vision, but I felt this really strong need to participate in this election,” she says. 

In doing so, she’s had a front–and–center seat to one of Pennsylvania’s most explosive election cycles in recent memory, coming off the heels of a fraught 2020 presidential election in which the ever–decisive swing state found itself in a position of particular significance to the presidential race’s outcome. 

The Shapiro vs. Doug Mastriano race is practically a case study in modern political tensions and dynamics. “It’s been really interesting to see the progression, observing Mastriano as a background candidate in the field, when people weren’t giving a lot of attention or merit to his campaign, and then seeing the media tonal shift with him as the winner of the primaries. He has upped his messaging and altered the way he’s disseminating information, and it’s been an interesting evolution to observe.”

When asked about the organization’s goals, she says, “The biggest thing is just educating people—letting them know that Pennsylvania is a key state and this isn’t just a normal election. The future of presidential elections is also on the line right now in Pennsylvania,” she says. The governor gets to appoint the secretary of elections in Pennsylvania, and they are in charge of making the final calls when it comes to the electorate. “It’s a scary thought, but the future of elections is literally on the line in many battleground states right now, so this election is especially important for us to participate in,” Annie explains. “Regardless of who you are at Penn, you are at Penn and that places you in a position of privilege.” 

Photo courtesy of Annie Hait.

“I strongly believe that it’s all of our duties to use whatever privilege that we do have to help those who don’t have it. It’s a difficult thing to grapple with in college, and a lot of people aren’t necessarily thinking about that right now, but at the end of the day, we are in a position to help others. It’s on us to not only defend our own rights, but also the rights of others,” she says.

In the face of a multitude of challenges, be it out–of–state voter logistics, college–kid political apathy, or a simple lack of social and political awareness, Annie Hait and Students for Shapiro personify a meaningful sense of fresh political energy: as young people come out to push forward the type of change they want to see in their communities, we see more candidates begin to recognize the power of the young electorate, and answer more and more to their refreshing enthusiasm and determination. 

The group has found themselves in a unique position at a unique time. Their message is for the students, by the students, and at the end of the day there’s only one thing left to say: “Go out and vote. Your voice matters, so go out and make that voice heard on election day.”