Grounded by Pandemic, River Hawks Take on America East Votes Challenge

a person drops a mail-in ballot into a mailbox Image by Getty Images
Making a plan to safely vote in the upcoming election - either in person or by mail - is an important part of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge that UML students are promoting.

By Ed Brennen

What do Division I student-athletes do with their competitive energy when a global pandemic forces them to take a time-out from their sports?

At UMass Lowell, they channel their competitiveness toward a new goal: getting as many of their fellow students as possible to vote in the upcoming election.  

River Hawk student-athletes from all 16 of UML’s Division I men’s and women’s teams are taking part in the America East Votes Challenge, a get-out-the-vote competition among the athletic conference’s 10 member schools.

It’s part of the larger ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national initiative to boost voter registration, engagement and turnout among college students. In August, UMass President Marty Meehan announced that the system’s five campuses were joining more than 1,400 campuses across the country in the challenge.

The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), which is made up of elected representatives from each Division I team, is helping spearhead those efforts at UML.

“As students and American citizens, it’s our civic duty to get out there and vote and make our voices heard,” says SAAC Co-President Abby Drezek, a senior exercise science major and women’s soccer player from Cumberland, R.I. “If you want to stand up for what you believe in and make change, this is where you start.”

Between now and Election Day on Nov. 3, student-athletes will be using social media to ask UML students, as well as faculty and staff, to take the pledge to vote. Once someone takes the online pledge, they receive information via email about voting in their respective home state, including registration deadlines (Oct. 24 in Massachusetts), polling locations and details on candidates and ballot measures.
Abby Drezek talks to a fellow student Image by Ed Brennen
As Co-President of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, women's soccer player Abby Drezek is working to get her fellow River Hawks to vote in the upcoming election.

They also receive information on voting early — either by mail or in person — which has expanded this year and become a critical alternative given the public health concerns about voting in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People need to make an active plan to vote that is safe for them,” Drezek says.

UML Director of Athletics Peter Casey is thrilled to see student-athletes using their voices to engage their peers in the democratic process.

“One of our main priorities at UMass Lowell is to educate our student-athletes across all areas, including civic engagement, so that no matter what they choose to pursue in the future, they can lead well-rounded, successful lives,” Casey says. 

The student-athletes’ efforts align with those of other student organizations on campus, including the student chapter of MassPIRG and Greek Life, which have come together to form a UML Voter Coalition. They have partnered with to take part in a similar voter registration and pledge drive.

Drezek says the student groups are taking part in a social media challenge in which one group, say the Black Student Union, has 24 hours to register as many of its members to vote as it can before tagging another group to do the same. 

“If we all work together, we’re more likely to achieve our goals, which is getting everyone to vote,” says Drezek, who adds that a similar challenge is planned among teams in athletics.

Of course, not every UML student is eligible to vote. In athletics alone, 40 of the 408 student-athletes are international students (representing 19 countries).

“We still want to encourage them to learn about the electoral process in the U.S. and share the information with others who are able to vote,” says Asst. Athletic Director for Administration Ruben Sanca ’10, who also serves as the SAAC advisor.  

Sanca isn’t surprised that interest in the election is strong this year among the 368 domestic student-athletes, who represent 21 states — including 214 who are from Massachusetts.

“Because of everything that’s going on, whether it’s with COVID or racial injustice, I’ve definitely seen more students wanting to be more involved in the election,” says Sanca, who adds that students who take the pledge are not swayed to vote in any particular direction.

“They get factual information sent to their inbox so they can make their decisions,” he says.

With a month to go before the election, UML was running in third place with nearly 100 pledges in the America East Votes Challenge, which will recognize schools based on the percentage of their student populations that pledge to vote. 
As an Olympic marathoner and member of the UML Athletic Hall of Fame, Sanca’s own competitive spirit is coming out in the America East Votes and ALL IN challenges. 

“I would like us not just to win the America East, but to finish first in the whole country,” says Sanca, who notes that the River Hawks won an America East Food Frenzy donation drive last fall. “We’re pretty competitive, and I think we do a really good job of informing our students about the different initiatives and how they can get involved.”

The ultimate goal, though, is to get every eligible student registered and committed to vote in the 2020 election.

“We encourage student-athletes to use their platform to contribute to their community, whether at home or here in Lowell,” Sanca says. “We believe they can use their platform for positive change.”