“Hello, Congresswoman,” I said to Rep. Betty McCollum, Democrat from Minnesota’s Fourth District, as we stood together at RiverCentre’s Radio Row at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Assuming that she was there to provide “the Democratic response” on any number of radio shows, I introduced myself as a political science professor and director of women’s studies at the University of St. Thomas, and thanked her again for visiting my Women and Politics course a few years ago. “Oh,” she said, smiling. “You know who I am. So many people are confusing me with Michele Bachmann (Republican from Minnesota’s Sixth District) today.”
In a two-week period filled with great stories, this one stands out for me, as it demonstrates the unique and equalizing nature of a national political convention. Congressional representatives (of both major parties), U.S. senators, former presidential candidates, former presidents and well-known journalists walk the same halls and go through the same security gates as delegates and guests from every state and territory. And thanks to the Washington Center’s Campaign 2008 National Republican Convention seminar and strong support from Dean Marisa Kelly and Associate Dean Terry Langan, 11 St. Thomas students and I also were walking those halls.
Priming for Prime Time
It was my privilege to be the faculty leader for an exceptional group of students: Stephen Arves, Joslyn Bolson, Michael Connell, Andrew Engen, Alison Garbe, Alison Goossens, Tom Harriman, Emily McGann, Tiffany Orth, Kyle Roskam and Challee Stefani. They joined 90 other students from 44 colleges and universities from 19 states and two other countries for an exciting and intensive two-week seminar hosted by Augsburg College. The Washington Center is the only national academic program for college students at the conventions, and the program provides an integrated academic and fieldwork experience to help students learn about the presidential nomination process through an on-site immersion experience.
Fieldwork placements began a few months before the convention, with students providing résumés and statements of interest to the Washington Center. Students were then assigned fieldwork that would allow them to be in the “right place at the right time” to observe or participate in the convention. University of St. Thomas students were placed with the following media organizations: CNN, CBN News, Univision, European Pressphoto Agency, Cox News, Roll Call, Cat Country, Tribune Broadcasting, and “The Daily Show.”
The academic integrity of the program was guided by a faculty director and a scholar-in-residence, along with 13 faculty leaders from across the country, who worked with students in small groups. Rep. Mickey Edwards, a former member of Congress with expertise in constitutional issues, served as faculty director, and Dr. Meena Bose, a professor at Hofstra University with expertise in presidential studies, served as scholar-in-residence. The format for the seminar typically included speakers and panels in the morning, small group meetings in the afternoon, followed by fieldwork and/or convention-related activities. Students heard from an impressive array of speakers with a variety of perspectives over these two weeks. Highlights included Rep. Tim Penny, Minnesota State Representatives Patrick Garofalo and Steve Simon, Secret Service Special Agent David O’Connor, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and 2008 Libertarian Party presidential nominee Bob Barr.
Discussions both within the seminar and in our small groups were enhanced by the reality that the Democratic National Convention was taking place during the first week of our seminar, allowing us to analyze particular speeches and anticipate what the Republican party’s response might be the following week. In addition to participation in these sessions and small-group discussions, students also were required to keep a daily, structured, academic journal of their analysis of the day’s speakers as well as reflection and integration of assigned readings and fieldwork experiences. They also had to conduct a required number of interviews with convention delegates, elected public officials at various levels of government, media representatives and political consultants, all of which were effective training in both assertiveness and networking, as well as a great excuse to meet interesting people.
The first night I stood in awe watching these influential figures in our American political system talk within a few hundred feet of me. It was like they jumped out of the television screen and onto the stage before me. I walked within feet of Lieberman, Coleman, Giuliani, Huckabee, Bob Dole, Cindy McCain, and I also got a wave from Sarah Palin. I shook the hands of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and even exchanged a “thank you!” with John McCain himself!
I got my picture taken with Bob Schieffer, managed to jump up and down behind Wolf Blitzer during a live broadcast of CNN until my parents saw me, and I was stopped by the Secret Service so the 41st President, George H.W. Bush, could walk past.
My amazement soon turned to determination, however, as my glimpse at one piece of the election puzzle left me longing for more involvement. I’ve been telling my friends and family ever since that I am determined to become a delegate for the state of Minnesota and in four years be back at the RNC representing our state.
– ALISON GARBE, SENIOR, WHO WORKED WITH THE EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY AT THE RNC
For the Love of Politics
This experience provided all of us with opportunities to do things we wouldn’t normally get to do, such as have daily discussions about politics with a former member of Congress, attend a media party at the Guthrie Theater, and be on the floor of the convention for a presidential or vice-presidential nomination acceptance speech. It also was simply invigorating to talk politics all day, every day, for two weeks straight.
The seminar’s first speaker, Jo Ann Davidson, co-chair of the Republican National Committee and chair of the Committee on Arrangements for the convention, compared a political convention to being in a football stadium when your team is winning. That description stuck with me as I wandered around the Xcel Energy Center, soaking it all in.
Not every student who participated in this seminar was a Republican, of course, but even Democrats or Libertarians could appreciate the spectacular display of democratic participation that they were witnessing either inside and/or outside the Xcel Energy Center. For those of us who love politics, it is difficult to not be moved by being that close to the action. As one of my Democratic students wrote about being on the floor for McCain’s acceptance speech on the last night of the convention, “I don’t know exactly where I’ll end up, but I know that politics is the place for me. As all those balloons and confetti fell, I felt great contentment and excitement within my heart. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”
The first thing everyone asked me was, “Wait, you’re a Republican now?!” I, of course, set the record straight, “No, I am doing this for a class. I get credit for it, and I am looking at it as an excellent, once in a lifetime opportunity to attend a political convention of this magnitude right here at home.” And this opportunity did not disappoint. I got to meet a number of well known politicians, volunteer for CNN, which meant meeting Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, see the inner workings of a television show as it is airing live on television, and be surrounded by people who love politics.
I probably had a permanent cringe on my face the entire time, listening to the speeches on stage or the delegates around me talking, but I saw the entire experience as motivation – motivation to ensure that none of these people win in November, making sure that their policies are not continued through another Republican administration and motivation to work my butt off for Barack Obama.
– ANDREW ENGEN, SENIOR, WHO WORKED WITH CNN’S “LATE EDITION” AT THE RNC
Seeing my Students Shine
My favorite part of this convention experience was seeing my students shine. They were prepared, having done extensive background reading before the seminar to have a solid foundation for all of the new information to which they would soon be exposed. They were professional, exceeding my expectations in terms of their fieldwork and seminar participation. From quickly learning how to operate a mobile radio station from an instructor’s manual, to covering press conferences and helping to host events, to getting their own byline after one day of fieldwork, these students made the University of St. Thomas proud. I also appreciated how they looked out for each other, sharing information about additional fieldwork opportunities, credentials and access to the floor during convention speeches.
By the last night of the convention, they had every right to be exhausted, but a few of them even showed up at 4 a.m. the following day for fieldwork, even though they were under no obligation to do so, just because they were needed.
“Today I got to the news trailer around 8:30 a.m. and worked until about 10:30 p.m. For the record, I could have left at any time, but I chose to stay. I would have left earlier, but I just enjoyed being there so much and gaining practical experience,” wrote one student in his academic journal. My students understood what an amazing opportunity this was for them, and they made the most of every day and every experience.
Whether we look back on the 2008 Republican National Convention as our only convention or our first convention, it is an experience we will never forget. For all of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a national political convention in an open election year, right in our own backyard. In the words of Gene Alpert, senior vice president of the Washington Center, “And then suddenly the convention is over, and we all go back to being pumpkins again.”
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