Junior Western Carolina University transfer student Joanna Woodson has become a rising star in politics and social activism. This spring, Woodson rallied students at Western Carolina to vote, earning the campus recognition when WCU students turned out to vote at a higher rate than the general voting population. She found herself in the headlines again when her efforts landed WCU an on-campus early voting precinct — a rare triumph for campuses looking to increase political participation.
The Andrew Goodman Foundation, a national organization that empowers young people to participate in the democratic process, was so impressed with Woodson’s work at WCU that it named her one of their six Hidden Heroes of 2016, recognizing her as a star among their dozen’s of student fellows situated at universities around the country.
Because of her leadership, Woodson, a social work major, is at the center of sometimes heated and extremely important discussions among students at WCU. This fall, the university will be publishing a series of stories about Woodson and her efforts to make WCU’s campus more engaged, not just in the upcoming election, but also in the many local, regional and state elections that drive policy decisions that affect society every day.
Woodson’s journey to WCU and interest in politics were previously spotlighted HERE.
Woodson’s rise to leadership began last year while a student worker at WCU’s Center for Service Learning. She was involved in a discussion in politics when the director of service learning, Lane Perry, asked if she like politics. “Yes Lane, I do,” Woodson replied.
From there, Perry had the Monroe native supply a resume and a letter stating all of the issues she cared about. That led to her being chosen for an internship at AGF. Woodson hit the ground running, helping to organize a voter registration drive in the center of campus, which began as twice-a-month events and grew from there.
There were intentional dialogue educational events and a State of the Union watch party. Then, after hearing of initial discussions to get an early voting precinct on campus, Woodson took the lead to make that a reality.
“We decided, let’s figure out how to get one here,” Woodson said. “We decided the very first place to gauge was to determine if the students want it. We got 1,000 signatures so I think that speaks for itself. Not all of them were students, but a good majority were.”
Her voter registration work led to a 37 percent turnout among WCU students for the March primary, which was second highest among North Carolina colleges and universities, while also besting the general voting population turnout of 36 percent.
Still, with WCU having an early voting precinct for the November election, Woodson would like to see that number in the 60 percent range.
“I feel conflicted about that number (37 percent) because no matter how good it is, relatively, it’s still a sad number,” Woodson said. “Thirty-seven is not good. That fact that it’s more than 19 percent, which I believe was the turnout in 2014, yes, that’s fabulous. The fact that it’s better than most other schools in North Carolina, that’s amazing, too. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m still a little disappointed.”
That determination is one of many reasons Perry believes Woodson has become the leader she is.
“I think her calmness and not being easily overwhelmed, in connection with composure, make her a good leader,” Perry said. “I think those are skills that I am personally trying to manage and I’m 10 years her senior. I think she does such a good job with those spaces of being composed and articulate and thoughtful. And also she has an ability to organize people around an idea, which is what leaders can do because they have a clear vision, they are articulate in that vision and they’re inspiring in it, as well.”
With those attributes, along with her work ethic, it’s no surprise AGF recognized her for its Hidden Heroes honor, an annual award given to members of the Vote Everywhere coalition for students that have been instrumental in creating change on their campus.
“I guess we’re doing something right,” Woodson said. “I think it’s a combination of our hard work and luck, and the willingness on the part of the university and the Jackson County Board of Elections to be lobbied.”
“While she’s a Hidden Hero to a lot of people, to me she’s an evident hero,” Perry said. “She navigates people like a social worker. She navigates her passion like an evangelist and policy like a future lawyer. What’s very inspiring to me is I’ve seen them become forged. I think she would be honest and say that these were not skills that she had tuned when she started to the point she has tuned them now.”
Early voting at WCU is Oct. 27 through Nov. 5. Following the Nov. 8 election, the university will assess Woodson’s efforts and share her views on the voting process.