MC student urges political involvement

Winters, president of College Democrats of TN, urges political involvement

July 27, 2016

Will Winters ’17 isn’t closed-mouthed about whom he plans to vote for in November, but he believes the real opponent in any election is political apathy.

Elected president of the College Democrats of Tennessee (CDTN) in April, this senior economics major, political science minor and defensive lineman for the Fighting Scots football team is passionate about involving more young adults in the political process.

“I threw my name into the ring because I didn’t think this organization was living up to its potential, that college students’ voices weren’t being heard by state government, and that there was a perception problem, nationally, with college-age voters.”

Interning with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) this summer in Washington, D.C., he helped plan the College Democrats of America’s national convention in Philadelphia July 22-24.

He’s in Philadelphia this week for the Democratic National Convention, watching Hillary Clinton accept the party’s nomination for president.

“Conventions are an amazing place for all people who love their country – Republican or Democrat,” he said. “People from around the country come together to support issues they believe will move the country forward.

“I'm very excited to be working the Democratic convention this year, watching Hillary Clinton become the first female major party nominee and, hopefully, the next president. I am very happy to see members of some of the College Democrats groups that I help start representing Tennessee as Democratic delegates.”

The summer internship has been equally exciting, he said.

“Working at the DNC, I have gotten to meet some amazing people, such as Congresswoman and senatorial candidate Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Congressman and Black Caucus chair G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), and so many other great public servants,” he said.

Climbing the ladder

Winters’s experiences in D.C. and Philadelphia are the next logical rungs to climb on his political ladder.

The son of Baptist preachers (both mother and father are ordained in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), he grew up in a family of Democrats and started paying attention to the political scene as early as 8th grade.

“From the church, I learned how important it is to help the poor, to give to people in need and to be welcoming, and I think that shaped my being a Democrat,” Winters said. “My sphere has always been trying to help people. That’s why I’d like to run for office someday.”

He said following politics – and being a Democrat – put him in a minority at Karns High School in Knoxville, Tenn., but that didn’t quell his interest.

As a freshman at Maryville College, he attended an Opportunities of a Lifetime Fair organized by Student Development and signed up to join the MC Democrats but soon realized that it was nearly defunct due to a turnover in student leadership. At the end of his freshman year, he scheduled a meeting with Kristin Gourley, director of campus life.

“I told her that I was interested in reviving the MC Democrats,” Winters said. “She was supportive.”

Already thinking strategically, Winters, assuming the role as president, recruited Nick Peterson ‘17, a friend and fellow classmate, to be his vice president and help him recruit members and plan the next year.

“We lived in the same residence hall, and I knew Nick knew everyone and was involved,” he explained.

The summer after his freshman year would provide more training in how to lead the MC Democrats.

“I was given a ‘Ready for Hillary [Clinton]’ Fellowship,” Winters said. “I worked here, signing up supporters, and I learned how to organize groups. I learned how the MC Democrats could be – and why it should be – a political group, not just a college club. I learned more about the role of social media, activism, being a political operative.”

Back on campus that fall, he and Peterson held interest meetings for students.

“No one showed up for the first two,” Winters remembered. “Then we planned meetings about issues.”

Attendance grew slowly, and Winters and Peterson were persistent. They achieved official recognition by the CDTN and planned a trip to the organization’s state convention that spring. There, he was named the organization’s director of political affairs.

“2014-2015 was our biggest growing and learning year,” he said of the MC Democrats.

Another summer fellowship – this time, with Organizing for Action – gave him more campaign experience that would impact his leadership of both the MC Democrats and the state organization.

“I worked with [former state representative] Gloria Johnson on the Insure Tennessee campaign. Students from the University of Tennessee, UT-Chattanooga and Hardin Valley High School and I met with her regularly,” he said. “We’re now helping with her campaign [for the Tennessee House of Representatives.]”

Toward a blue state

As director of political affairs, Winters set a goal of starting more Democrat groups on college campuses.

“When I started, we had 10 college Democrat groups on campuses across Tennessee,” he explained. “Ten out of 55 institutions.”

Because of Winters’s work, the statewide network now includes 24 groups and is the fifth largest chapter in the country – behind states like New York, Massachusetts, California and Texas.

“Before I started, we had three college Democrat groups in East Tennessee. Now, we have nine,” he said. “And I have connections with others; more groups are in the process of organizing.”

The vast majority of colleges and universities have been receptive and supportive. Even schools with large conservative populations.

“These students are open to hearing other ideas, and another voice is needed,” he said.

In advising students about starting and building chapters on their campuses, Winters drew from his own success at Maryville. Meeting regularly, organizing forums where students can be educated on the issues, networking across the party and volunteering with campaigns have been key, he said.

During the presidential primaries, Winters, Peterson and the rest of their MC team did phone banking on campus and organized three out-of-state trips to campaign. (Two trips were for Hillary Clinton; one was for Bernie Sanders.)

It wasn’t long after those weekend trips that Winters decided to run for the presidency of the state chapter. His platform was “Unify, Educate and Organize.”

His goals for the CDTN include pushing each chapter to get involved in local campaigns, thereby making them more sustainable, and becoming the largest Democrat college chapter in the country.

If the College Democrats of America’s national convention is any indication, he’s making good progress.

“We had the largest delegation of Tennessee students ever,” he said.

In his role, Winters serves on the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, which meets once a month and is chaired by Mary Mancini. Guiding both the state body and the MC student organization during a hotly contested presidential election period, he expects another busy fall.

But he welcomes the opportunity.

“I want to give a voice to the students, because these students are the people who will be giving a voice to others,” he said. “It’s a bigger movement. Like [Maryville College founder] Isaac Anderson urged, it’s ‘doing good on the largest possible scale.’”

Big expectations

At Maryville College, Winters has set a standard for leadership that is recognized and respected by the student body, regardless of political ideology, said Zane Dukes, Center for Campus Ministry program coordinator and staff advisor for the MC Democrats.

“Will is kind, hardworking and dedicated,” Dukes said. “I remember his first College Democrats meeting where no one showed up. I think he was disappointed, but it motivated him and Nick to not be embarrassed again. Will also didn’t want to let the party down.

“His hard work turned the MC College Dems into a successful student organization, which has served as a model for starting new college Democrats clubs across the state,” he added.

The advisor said he expects big things from his student organization president.

“In 2015, Will was presented with Maryville College’s Student Activist of the Year award,” Dukes said. “I predict that some day, in the not-too-distant future, he will take the stage of the Democratic National Convention to accept his party’s nomination for president.”

By Karen Beaty Eldridge '94, Executive Director for Marketing & Communications


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.