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Alum’s Gifts Support Maryland Democracy Initiative

Couple’s Donations Fund Voter Mobilization, Internship Program During Critical Election Year

By Annie Krakower

young voter

Two gifts from Marsha Laufer ’64 and her husband, Henry (below), will support a new internship program and voter mobilization efforts aimed at welcoming more college and high school voters into the democratic process.

Photo by iStock

When Hillary Rodham Clinton walked into the Long Island home of Marsha Zlatin Laufer ’64 over two decades ago, the University of Maryland alumna found a new calling.

She and her husband, Henry, hosted a fundraiser for Clinton during New York’s 2000 U.S. Senate race, and the former first lady’s plans and passion inspired Marsha Laufer to leave her career as a speech language pathologist to become a full-time political activist. She traded her private clinical practice to work for Clinton’s ultimately successful campaign, open the first Democratic campaign headquarters on the North Shore and chair her local Democratic committee for eight years.

“It turned my life absolutely upside down,” she said. “When the political bug bites, there’s no antidote.”

Marsha and Henry Laufer

Now the Laufers are hoping to empower young people at her alma mater to become more engaged and involved in elections—this year and beyond.

Their two $100,000 gifts to UMD will support voter mobilization efforts and establish the Laufer Democracy Internship as part of the Maryland Democracy Initiative (MDI), a nonpartisan interdisciplinary program that combines research, teaching and learning, and civic engagement to create a more just society.

“It’s incumbent upon those of us who work with young people to facilitate their awareness of how important their voice is and how their voice makes a difference,” Marsha Laufer said.

Launched last year with funding from a Grand Challenges Impact Award, MDI incorporates expertise from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, College of Education, Philip Merrill College of Journalism and School of Public Policy to encourage civic participation and tackle threats to democracy.

“We believe our interdisciplinary approach enables us to combine and leverage our expertise, scholarship, practice and partnerships to better address a complex problem: strengthening our democracy,” said Lena Morreale Scott, MDI principal investigator and director of the Civic Education and Engagement Initiative in the College of Education.

Part of the Laufers’ contribution will fund paid full-time summer internships for 18 rising UMD sophomores, juniors and seniors, with placements at nonprofits such as Pizza to the Polls, APIAVote, Vote HBCU and others dedicated to voter education and mobilization at colleges and schools. Interns in the program, developed in partnership with the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, will bring their knowledge back to UMD to inform MDI research on effective student mobilization strategies.

"Tackling the grand challenges we face as a society requires us to prioritize the cultivation of civic-minded individuals," said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “The Laufer Democracy Internship is an invaluable opportunity to empower our students to actively engage in shaping our future.”

The donation will also buoy a new network of MDI faculty and fellows who are researching how to welcome more high school voters into the democratic process. That includes support for TerpsVote—a coalition of students, staff and faculty that promotes civic engagement—to train UMD student ambassadors.

“This funding can be a real catalyst to completely changing the game for how we understand engaging and informing high school students so that they can feel confident and ready to vote,” said MDI co-principal investigator Michael Hanmer, professor of government and politics and director of UMD’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.

While both projects focus on the 2024 elections, Marsha Laufer hopes they spur further growth for MDI.

“This is like dropping a pebble (in a pond),” she said. “It’s giving people tools to learn how to reach out to people, to inspire them, to inform them, to empower them. And then they become ambassadors, and they communicate that excitement to other people.”

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