Story by Danielle Freni
(Fairfax, Va.) As the United States experiences one of its most defining elections, one Jewish student is literally at the edge of his seat participating in history.
Hillel student Aram Zucker-Scharff at George Mason University.
In Northern Virginia – a region that could tip this longtime red state blue -- George Mason University (GMU) student Zucker-Scharff, 21, is at a computer typing furiously. He is the primary moderator and a founder of Mason Votes, a student-run organization whose Web site creates forums for civil discourse and educating the student body on campaign issues.
“We’ve created a portal for the world to see what GMU students are saying about the election,” he says. And the world is taking notice. This morning, Zucker-Scharff was interviewed by the local Fox 5 affiliate. Last week he answered questions for Al Jazeera’s New York affiliate and before that, he was featured on The Newshour with Jim Lehr. Mason Votes’ content has been shared by United Press International and The Washington Post.
Mason Votes was formed over the summer of 2008 as the presidential race began to intensify. Born out of a conversation between Hillel leader Zucker-Scharff, GMU Hillel Director Scott Bailey and his colleagues in the University Life Department, the concept behind Mason Votes was originally to organize an election-watch party.
“We wanted to get students excited about the upcoming election,” explains Bailey. “But then we started to ask ourselves, ‘How can we make this a bigger deal? How can we encourage students to vote?’”
Mason Votes quickly evolved from a party-planning committee to a full-fledged university–wide campaign complete with 20 active members representing various campus departments, a budget, a logo, and a significant presence on campus. The Web site became the focus of the organization.
“McCain would talk about ‘lenders of last resort’ in the media,” explains Zucker-Scharff. “But students didn’t know what that meant, so we’d explain it.”
Zucker-Scharff checking in on Mason Votes' Web site.
The site combines blogging with news feeds and video and is linked to incredibly popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“We’re reaching out to students where they live on the Web,” says Zucker-Scharff, who designed the site. “Mason Votes is seizing the opportunity to tap into platforms they’re already utilizing.”
Zucker-Scharff, from Larchmont, N.Y., is no stranger to leadership, technology, or the media. His passion for journalism and the Internet has led him to pursue dual degrees in Information Technology (BS) and English (BA). Last year, he served as the managing editor of GMU’s student newspaper, Broadside, and currently he is the technology manager at the Office of Student Media at GMU. He was the president of GMU’s Hillel and vice president of the school’s Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.
Tonight, as the election reaches its climax, Zucker-Scharff and his Mason Votes colleagues will be live blogging throughout the ballot counting with plans “to stay up until it’s over.” But today’s election is not the end of Mason Votes.
“The idea was to create a movement that continues throughout every election season,” explains Bailey. “Virginia is already gearing up for a gubernatorial race and we want students to stay aware of the issues, no matter what happens tomorrow.”
Hear Aram Zucker-Scharff talk about Mason Votes on YouTube:
Danielle Freni is Hillel's senior communications associate.