Students Learn Politics First-Hand Through Nation's Only Campaign Semester

This fall, nine Occidental College students have front-row seats to the mid-term elections through Oxy's Campaign Semester, the country's only college program in which students get a full semester of academic credit for working in key House and Senate races. 

 

The students have been working since the beginning of the semester on political campaigns in battleground states and Congressional districts. The 10-week internships will end on Election Day, after which they will return to the Occidental campus in Los Angeles for an intensive five-week seminar to put their campaign experiences in broader context. Their campaign duties have included knocking on voters' doors, staffing phone banks, registering voters, training campaign volunteers, and updating their candidates' Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking pages.

"What better way to learn about the real world of politics than to work full time for a campaign?" said Peter Dreier, Occidental's E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics. "Students get their hands dirty working at the real grassroots level. It's an eye-opening experience. For some, it's even a life-changing one."

Kelly Shaftel '12, a politics major from La Crescenta, works long days as a field organizer for Tom Perriello, who represents Virginia's rural 5th District. A Los Angeles native, Shaftel chose to work for the freshman congressman because his race is among the most competitive in the country and because she wanted to experience small-town rural America.

Because she's been volunteering for Perriello since May, Shaftel has a fair amount of responsibility, managing two campaign offices and attending events on Perriello's behalf to recruit new volunteers, among other duties.

"I've talked to hundreds of voters, and many people base their vote on emotions, tradition, or anger with ‘Washington' rather than on logic, the facts, or what's probably even in their own self-interest," Shaftel said. "This was very surprising to me."

In addition to volunteering full time, the students compile a detailed weekly journal and, during the on-campus seminar, complete assigned readings, write a research paper based on the campaign (e.g. the role of the media, voting analysis), and give a public presentation of their Campaign Semester experience.

Dreier and his colleagues, politics professors Regina Freer and Caroline Heldman, launched Campaign Semester two years ago. In the 2008 election season, 19 Occidental students worked full time in presidential, Senate, and House campaigns.

In addition to Shaftel, the students participating in Oxy's 2010 Campaign Semester are:

  • Sam Boland '13, politics major from Palm Springs: Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign
  • Stefanie Davis '12, politics major from South Hadley, Mass.: Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign
  • Dimitri Groce '11, politics major from Seattle: Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign
  • Adam Levy '13, politics major from Manhattan Beach: Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
  • Meagan McGinty '13, politics major from Philadelphia: Organizing for America-Louisiana
  • Jaycee Melendez '12, politics major from Los Angeles: Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign
  • Robert Sandoval '13, politics major from Glendora: Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign
  • Robert Sozanski '12, urban and environmental policy major from Buffalo, N.Y.: Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.)

Sozanski canvasses, runs phone banks, and acts as a media liaison for Rep. Alan Grayson's re-election campaign. He chose Grayson, who represents Florida's 8th district, because of the politician's commitment to healthcare and education and his background as a lawyer who sued unscrupulous military contractors.

One perk of Sozanski's job was meeting Vice President Joe Biden, who came to Orlando for a three-hour visit to stump for Grayson. The junior urban and environmental policy major was one of the drivers in Biden's motorcade. After Biden finished his speech at the local convention center, Sozanski met him backstage and talked to him briefly.

"Biden said that if he had my hair he would be president right now. I told him that I saw some pictures of Obama at Occidental and he had some pretty big hair too," Sozanski said. "Then he thanked me for driving and told me Occidental was a great school."

Halfway across the country, Boland is working with four other Oxy students for the Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign in Chicago. Over the last two months, he's done everything from optimizing Internet advertisements and managing 50 high school volunteers to fixing the campaign office printers.

"I've learned that people are really passionate, that they care about their candidates," Boland said. "But I'm surprised at the vitriol taking over the national stage, and how the national political climate affects even small races."

Philadelphia native McGinty is working for Organizing for America in Louisiana, where state legislator Cedric Richmond is gunning to unseat the incumbent to represent the Pelican State's 2nd District, based in New Orleans. McGinty spends her days running the organization's Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks, as well as calling volunteers to help canvass and reach prospective voters.

One highlight was ushering in VIPs at President Barack Obama's visit to New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"Besides checking in several Louisiana politicians and national figures, hearing Obama speak was extremely inspiring," McGinty said. "He complimented the city on how hard they've worked to recover from the storm, and expressed his solidarity with the rebuilding."