Census blitz next week aims for complete count in student residence halls at Berkeley

What does it take to count a village? Organization, for one, says UC Berkeley senior

Christina Markle wants to leave a significant legacy for the local community, and its government, when she graduates this May. That’s why the Berkeley senior — having done volunteer work in tutoring, policy analysis, and immigrant social services during her college career — opted to lend her talents, this spring, to Berkeley’s town-gown 2010 census project.

Christina Markle“I thought to myself ‘the one thing I haven’t done yet is government.’ I wanted to really connect myself to that,” she says.

A highly organized intern for the campus’s Community Relations office (for our interview she voluntarily supplied a detailed UC4 timeline, a two-page contact list, and copies of relevant e-mails and articles), Markle hopes to leave behind a complete record of the town-gown-federal collaboration. In the 2000 census, UC Berkeley students were dramatically undercounted. “Where’s the report from 2000?” she asks. “Nobody knows what happened. Why?” This time, “I want to write down what we did right and wrong,” for those who face the same task in 2020.

Markle connected with Cal Corps Public Service Center, as a tutor in the local schools, her first semester at Berkeley. The next year she became a student director for that project (for which she earned an AmeriCorps award). Later she did an UCDC internship at the Smithsonian Institute, and developed a Cal Corps volunteer program at East Bay Sanctuary Convenant, a local non-profit offering free legal and social services to asylum seekers. That work had personal resonance, she says, as both her grandmother and mother came to the U.S. from Guatemala.

Now the southern California native has won a “lucky ticket to my dream job” in public service: a John Gardner Fellowship. Awarded each year to six graduating seniors — three each from Berkeley and Stanford — the Gardner provides stipends for 10-month public-service placements under the guidance of a mentor. Markle is weighing opportunities at the White House, State Department, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Down the road, she hopes to earn a law degree and start a non-profit clearinghouse for those needing free or low-cost legal services. “I hope to create a rating system. ‘This lawyer is really great; with this one you need an interpreter,'” Markle says. “Getting free or low-cost legal help is not impossible, but someone needs to organize it.”

Early next week, thousands of UC Berkeley students will stand up and be counted, in the 2010 U.S. census. The civic-minded, even fun, action will unfold the evenings of April 19 and 20 in student residence halls, where more than 6,000 students live. There, students will turn in, at designated collection sites, the simplified seven-question census form designed for those who live in “group quarters,” and be entered into a drawing for a slew of individual and group prizes. Similar census events are being held in the co-ops, International House, and campus family-housing facilities.

The upcoming student census blitz is the culmination of months of organizing by the UC Complete Count Committee, or UC4, a unique town-gown-federal coalition that came together over the summer at the request of the City of Berkeley.

“Students are considered as one of our ‘hard to count’ populations,” says Joe Lee ’09, census coordinator for the city. “Notoriously known not to fill out forms,” as he puts it, many students also mistakenly believe they are counted at their parents’ or guardians’ residence — rather than the place where they reside at the time of the census.

All that can prove costly for college towns, as each person counted in the census is worth more than $10,000, over a decade, in federal funding for local services like transportation, schools, public safety, and healthcare. After the 2000 census, the City of Berkeley, by its calculation, missed out on tens of millions due to the student undercount.

UC Berkeley has a student body of 35,000. But “the count in zip code 94704,” where student housing is concentrated, “was very, very low,” notes UC4 chair Marty Takimoto, director of marketing communications at Residential & Student Service Programs. So low, in fact, that (in one oft-cited example) out of more than 1,400 students living in the Unit 2 housing complex, only a single census form was returned.

Improving on the past

For the 2010 census, the city, census bureau, campus, and student groups, aided by a $5,000 grant from Alameda County, have collaborated on a comprehensive plan to “connect with and incentivize students,” says Berkeley senior Christina Markle, whose internship at the campus’s Office of Government and Community Relations is dedicated to a “complete count” of UC Berkeley students. A former president of the Residence Hall Assembly, Markle draws on strong connections with the student-housing network, and a keen sense of what makes students tick.

Why might students decline to participate in the census count? She cites survey weariness, the “census myth” about where they are counted, worries about the privacy of their information, even possible confusion or political objections concerning the racial and ethnic categories on the census form.

With these stumbling blocks in mind, UC4 has been hitting student watering holes with flyers listing the “top five reasons to fill out your census form,” which students in group housing received this week. (Those living in off-campus apartments or private homes received the standard 10-question form in March, for return through the U.S. mail.) The group has also created a website (bearing a distinctive logo created by the Undergraduate Marketing Association) and a presence on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

As additional motivation, UC4 is offering more than $5,000 worth of prizes for the residence-hall drawing, including a semester’s worth of textbooks from Ned’s and a $400 gift card from the Cal Student Store. The residence hall and co-op with the highest census participation will be eligible for a pizza party.

A model collaboration

By the end of April, student participation in the census will provide, in hard numbers, a measure of UC4’s success. But even before the final count, the census collaboration at Berkeley has been garnering attention and praise. “I’m not aware of any campus in the UC system, or the state, that has done what Berkeley has done,” says Dianne Smith, a census official tasked with achieving an accurate count in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

The City of Berkeley issued a mayor’s proclamation commending UC4 and other city census efforts; the state and other UC campuses have expressed interest in replicating the Berkeley model. “We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback,” says Markle. “We’re really ahead of the game.”

Recently, three regional census officials, based in Seattle, flew down to thank UC4 for its efforts. “That was exciting,” Markle says. “It felt good to know that our innovative collaboration is being supported on all ends.”