Pledge to Vote booth

Lees-McRae led the country in pledges for the Protect Our Winters college voting initiative

Lees-McRae may be a small school, but its students had a large impact on the Protect Our Winters Pledge to vote campaign.

In 2020, the environmental conservation nonprofit Protect Our Winters launched an initiative to encourage college students to get involved with the voting process and support candidates interested in protecting outdoor spaces. Lees-McRae rose to the challenge and ended up getting more pledges than any other educational institution in the country. Colorado Mesa University came in second, and the University of Maine came in third.

Eliza Cowie, the programs coordinator at Protect Our Winters, said, “We are so pleased with the efforts of Lees-McRae College to get students pledged to vote! We know that pledging to vote increased voter turnout and are excited that Lees-McRae not only introduced the most students to POW out of all participating colleges, but also successfully impacted voter turnout on campus and for the greater North Carolina population. Congrats Lees-McRae!”

Outdoor Recreation Management major Liliya Bauer spearheaded the initiative on campus. Bauer, who is also on the ski and snowboard team, has been a fan of the nonprofit and its founder Jeremy Jones since it started. Along with Outdoor Recreation Management Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor Katie Wall, Bauer has been actively working for the past several years to develop the relationship between Lees-McRae and Protect Our Winters.

“I took a class where I had to create a program, and I decided to do it with Protect Our Winters,” Bauer said. “I worked with (fellow student) Carter Tanney to get Protect Our Winters a part of campus. We had a lot of meetings and I did some work with the Paris Climate Accords. I did our first booth for Protect Our Winters at a Teton Gravity Research movie premiere on campus, and that put us on the map with them.”

Bauer and Wall also coordinated with Talia Freeman, the Beech Mountain Resort marketing director, to get both the resort and Lees-McRae affiliated with Protect Our Winters. 

“We kept pushing to be involved, and they emailed us about their ‘Purple Mountains’ campaign. ‘Purple Mountains’ was a movie Jeremy Jones, the director of Protect Our Winters, was putting out that year, and it was going to be released to colleges first, so we got on the college tour to be able to promote it through our school,” Bauer said.

At that point, Protect Our Winters recognized Lees-McRae as an institution that could serve as a valuable partner, especially as they worked to increase outreach in the Southeastern U.S., and decided to bring the college on board for its Pledge to Vote campaign, which ran from Oct. 1 to Nov. 4.

Bauer worked with Deana Acklin, the Outdoor Programs coordinator, to run multiple booths on campus where students could pledge to vote. Protect Our Winters provided a personalized phone number the college, and once registered students registered they were given localized information about which candidates on their ballot were dedicated to fighting climate change and protecting the environment. 

Pledge to Vote was initially intended to be a nationwide competition, but it was scaled back after many larger universities moved to remote learning for the Fall 2020 semester. Bauer believes that Lees-McRae was so successful partly because the college was able to continue offering in-person instruction, and partly because Lees-McRae is a relatively small institution.

“I think what really helped us was the fact that we were actually reaching to students personally and a lot of people knew that we were doing this initiative,” Bauer said. “Being a small school helped to our advantage because we were able to actually talk to students and get students to pledge to vote.”

And because the Pledge to Vote campaign centered on protecting the outdoors, many students were personally invested in the initiative, which likely increased engagement. Lees-McRae provides numerous opportunities to engage with the natural world through its academic programs, sports teams, and student life activities. Regardless of political beliefs, the students who pledged to vote were passionate about having access to the outdoors and preserving outdoor spaces.

Bauer plans to build on the college’s success and expand the partnership with Protect Our Winters.

“The fact that we got the most students to pledge means that we’re even more on Protect Our Winters’ radar,” Bauer said. “They just established a representative in North Carolina last year—in Durham—and it would be awesome for us to get in touch with him later on.”

Visit the Protect Our Winters website to learn more about their environmental advocacy. 

By Emily WebbFebruary 15, 2021
Campus Life