High Schoolers Look to Reagan for Cues at Upcoming Conservative Conference

Shown here is a road sign on the grounds of the Reagan Ranch in California. (Young America's Foundation)

Shown here is a road sign on the grounds of the Reagan Ranch in California. (Young America's Foundation)

Tweed is the new weed. 

Republican students may finally be building a clique to be reckoned with, as the Young America's Foundation hosts a national conference this week for conservative youth at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, Calif. 

The group will use the forum to unfurl its latest list of the top conservative colleges in America -- a lineup that covers 14 colleges and universities and includes Thomas More College, Grove City College, College of the Ozarks, Harding University and Hillsdale College. 

The group is not offering a list of colleges to avoid. 

"That would be quite a few schools," joked YAF Vice President Patrick Coyle. 

But YAF's three-day event, which starts Thursday, is the latest push to try to guide a revival of conservative student activism in the "era of Obama." The conference is billed as a place where high school students who caught the conservative bug can converge to get inspired, get organized and get active. 

"Conservatives are kind of the new counterculture of today," Coyle said. 

Students at the Reagan Ranch High School Conference plan to listen to a string of professors from conservative campuses, as well as semi-celebrities like President Reagan's son Michael and Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Coyle said the goal is to teach the students about conservatism but also give them tips on how to organize in high school and later on in college.

About 120 students are expected to attend the three-day gathering. It's not exactly the kind of youth movement that took on the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but the conference is part of a string of attempts to bring together and energize renewed student interest in conservative causes. 

Young Americans for Freedom, a separate group, held a session on youth activism at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville last month. And the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. -- the crimson standard of right-wing annual get-togethers -- was geared heavily toward students. 

Janie Abel, a 19-year-old sophomore at Canisius College in upstate New York, said the Young America's Foundation conference gave her a big boost when she attended three years ago as a junior at Amherst Central High School. At the time, she said, the high school administration was giving her grief as she tried to establish a new "conservative club" with other students. 

"Our principal didn't want us to bring any speakers in, thought all the activism events were too controversial," she said. 

She said she left the Reagan conference inspired. She built the organization on school grounds, and then left for college where she's now the public relations director for the Canisius College Republicans. It's not known whether her school is on the list that will be announced at the California conference. 

Abel said Obama's giving conservative student groups fuel but that the movement has been growing anyway. 

"I think they're angry and passionate and want to get involved. But I think the conservative movement in general is taking off," Abel said. "The conservative students are the new rebels of today." 

A similar kind of rebelliousness inspired the Tea Party movement to take off last year. Coyle said for students to win over supporters they'll have to walk the line between outspoken and tactful, and try to replicate what he called the "Reagan model of activism." 

"We want our students to, in a similar fashion, be confrontational with the campus left," Coyle said. "We want them to promote conservatism in a bold manner, but of course you want to do it in a smart way to bring people to our side."