For Maya Mahdi, a Virginia Tech senior, protecting freedom — and the right to vote — is a personal mission.

She grew up in Northern Virginia with her parents, who immigrated from Syria before she was born.

“My parents came to this country for the reason of freedom — freedom to choose and be whatever you want to be,” said Mahdi, who is majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics. “I want to protect that freedom for the people who come after me.

“I grew up around the sentiment that freedom is super important and without it, your humanity is stripped away,” she said. “This idea of the freedom to choose is obvious in voting, because you can choose to vote for whoever you want.”

That’s why she started Hokies Vote Caucus, a nonpartisan student organization, in the spring of 2021.

The organization is part of VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning, and Mahdi created it to give students the resources and education to learn about civic engagement.

On Oct. 28, she stood at a Hokies Vote Caucus table near Squires Student Center, reminding students about Election Day and handing out stickers. It was the last day to register for an absentee ballot in Virginia, and she and several other caucus members encouraged students to make a plan to vote and gave passersby free hot chocolate.

Photo of Maya Mahdi and other students
Maya Mahdi (at center) is founder of Hokies Vote Caucus. Photo by Savannah Webb for Virginia Tech.

In 2020, the voter registration rate for Virginia Tech students was 90.7 percent, according to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education: National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. This was above the national college and university average of 66 percent.

Of those Virginia Tech students registered, 73 percent cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential election.

As a part of her duties as director of Hokies Vote Caucus, Mahdi organizes voter registration drives, educational events with other student organizations, and deliberative dialogues.

Deliberative dialogues, open to both students and faculty, are guided conversations about topics and conversations that can be considered difficult or challenging.

“Our society today is very polarized, and we have students and faculty alike who feel uncomfortable expressing their viewpoints and talking to people who have different opinions from them,” Mahdi said. “Our mission is to teach students how to have conversations across those differences and how to appreciate those differences instead of seeing them as sort of a roadblock for change.”

Any student or faculty member is welcome to take part in Deliberative Dialogues and other Hokies Vote Caucus events. All members of Hokies Vote Caucus are trained as moderators to ensure that everybody remains equal in the conversation and civic engagement remains civil.

In May, Mahdi was one of 82 college students nationwide named to the 2022 ALL IN Student Voting Honor Roll. The honor recognized students for their nonpartisan voter engagement efforts at campuses across the country in 2021. Mahdi joins students at participating campuses who are advancing nonpartisan student voter registration, education, and turnout efforts and ensuring equitable access to polls.

Jes Davis, associate director for VT Engage, serves as the faculty advisor to Hokies Vote Caucus. She said she has been impressed by the work that Mahdi has been able to accomplish in the last year and a half.

“She really wants to make the world a better place and sees voting as one of those steps to do that,” Davis said. “Our department gets a lot of credit for the civic engagement stuff that we do, and I would say three quarters of it would not have been able to be done without her and the things in which she’s been able to dream over in the last few years.”

While events like these do increase civic engagement, Mahdi said her main goal is to change the way people talk about voting and elections and civic engagement at Virginia Tech and make it a stronger influence in the university’s culture.

“It’s part of the university’s duty to educate students in every way,” Mahdi said. “Virginia Tech is able to say that when you graduate from our university, you don’t just graduate with the knowledge from your major. You also leave with knowledge about our society, how to create positive change in your community, and how to stay connected with your community.”

Written by Savannah Webb '23, intern for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences