September 16, 2022
Read time : 13 min

What makes the Up to Us community special is the steadfast commitment of our students and alumni to civic engagement and using their careers to make a difference on the issues that matter most to local communities. Whether it’s educating fellow students about the national debt, helping register peers to vote, meeting with local elected officials to ensure that their priorities are heard, or running for local office themselves, the Up to Us community understands that there is power in our collective action and that democracy only works through the active participation of all voices. That’s why each year, Up to Us invites current participants and alumni from our national Campus Competition to apply for our Civic Engagement Fellowship. We asked them to reflect on their experience and what they have learned. Hear what they have to say!

Civic Engagement Fellow: Julia Brandenstein

Up to Us Competition Year: Spring 2022 Winner, Stony Brook University

Role this Summer: Graduate Coordinator for the Center for Civic Justice at Stony Brook University

Up to Us Competition Year: Spring 2022 Winner, Stony Brook University

What did your role entail at the Center for Civic Justice? 

I helped plan the programming and outreach efforts that will be conducted throughout the entirety of the fall semester at Stony Brook University. These included: 

  • National Voter Education Week, National Voter Registration Day, National Vote Early Day, and more. 
  • Several new outreach efforts designed to integrate specialized student populations into our efforts and ensure that all students have access to resources that will help them stay engaged in the democratic process. 
  • Voter registration efforts for medical students, and resident assistants to ensure they are registered to vote and know how to tell other students about using the center as a resource. 
  • 20 class visits to Freshman Seminars to educate them about the resources available to them through the center to stay civically engaged throughout their four years at the university, and to ensure they are all registered to vote. 

This outreach and peer education efforts are essential to motivate students to stay civically engaged throughout their time at the university. 

What was the project you were most proud of?

The main project that I designed, developed, and implemented is entitled “Democracy-101”. 

After being on campus for over a year and being an active member of the Center for Civic Justice, I noticed a gap in knowledge relating to civic engagement within our predominantly STEM-based student population. I recognized that after high school, many STEM students were never again going to be introduced to information on the structure of American government, how to contact local officials, and ultimately, what it means for one to be civically engaged. 

As a student passionate about advocacy, and teaching others how to advance their concerns within government, I decided to help bridge this gap in knowledge by developing “Democracy-101”: a peer-based education system that aims to teach students the basics of civic engagement. Through this program, students will learn who their local officials are, the responsibilities of different elected officials within different parts of government, how to contact these officials and ways to stay civically engaged outside of the campus. 

Through this initiative, I hope to turn the confusion that many students have about government relations, into a passion for advocacy and outreach which they carry throughout their endeavors after their time at the university. 

What did you enjoy most about this experience? 

I was not only advancing the greater mission of the center on campus by educating incoming students or planning semester events but also able to advance the greater mission of advocating for increased civic engagement in our communities. 

Looking at the greater political landscape of the United States, we can see that there is really only one vehicle for legislative change that individuals have; voting. Many students believe casting a vote is just a symbolic action. They believe that it will have no impact because they are just one person, or that they shouldn’t vote because they are not knowledgeable about politics.

The Center for Civic Justice allowed me to interact with students directly and help show that everyone should vote, no matter who they are, or what they know because even one person can make a difference. By educating students on the power of their vote, and their voice, we can help demonstrate why participating in the democratic process is essential to furthering national, or even global initiatives that students may be interested in. 

Motivating others to be civically engaged is an incredibly powerful force for change as it teaches others how to advocate for their concerns, as well as use their voice as a force for change, and I am honored that I can be a part of such a crucial effort. 

What are your key takeaways? 

The experience demonstrated to me that if there is something you are dedicated to, with enough passion you can begin to create change on your own. As a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to make a change in the communities that surrounded me but I felt so lost. Public policy, advocacy, and civic engagement have been of interest to me throughout my entire collegiate career, but when looking at large-scale national issues that motivate you to make a difference it can be hard to identify how one person can catalyze change. 

The Center for Civic Justice truly demonstrated the power one individual can have in their community through outreach and engagement. My experience here also taught me that when you show others your dedication to your mission and your goals, they will give everything they can to help you make it happen. I saw this by developing interdepartmental efforts and new outreach programs that were strongly backed by a community of faculty and staff that wanted to see them succeed. 

I saw that with enough dedication any individual will be able to make the change that they want to see in the world around them. 

Do you have any advice to share with fellow changemakers?

Never be scared to take a risk if you are doing something you care about. 

As a freshman in college, I started as a biology major because I was ingrained with the notion that successful students must enter STEM. After all, outside of STEM, there is no possibility of being successful. I was so scared to leave a major I hated, or do something non-STEM related as I thought that it would take away from my ability to be successful. I held such a deeply rooted passion for political science and policy analysis but thought I would just have to let the passion die to pursue more important efforts. 

I can see so clearly now that taking a small risk and stepping outside my comfort zone completely changed the trajectory of not only my college experience but the rest of my life. 

I sent one email. That email was to the director of the Center for Civic Justice asking if they had internships available to students. After joining the Center for Civic Justice, I was surrounded by a community of like-minded students who were passionate about the same topics as I was, and had similar goals for how they wanted to make their mark on the world. I finally felt accepted and entered a period of growth that allowed me to develop into the person I am today. I changed my major and opened myself up to a world of experiences that didn’t make me feel fear or anxiety but brought me so much joy and a lust for life. 

At the end of my college career I thought I would have a resume marked with clinical hours, lab experience, and other nonsense, but in its place stands some of my proudest achievements to date that would not have been possible without taking a risk. 

Though a series of small risks seems scary, what will happen if you don’t take them will always be scarier. Be bold, be brave, and stay true to yourself.


Julia Brandenstein is a graduating Senior at Stony Brook University majoring in Psychology and Political Science with a minor in International Relations. She joined the Up to Us competition while working as the Undergraduate Coordinator of the Center for Civic Justice on her school's campus. With over 500 hours of planning her campaign engaged thousands of participants in person to raise awareness of the importance of fiscal sustainability. She successfully accomplished this by beginning a podcast featuring local officials, students, and content creators about the importance of fiscal sustainability for students, the government, and its implications. Julia will be pursuing a master's degree in Public Policy Analysis after she graduates and will assume the role of Graduate Coordinator for Stony Brooks Center for Civic Justice. After graduate school, she hopes to attend law school.