FEATURE — Winter 2008

Outside Graham Chapel, students gathered behind the MSNBC stage to display their preferences in candidates, and they formed the backdrop to such broadcasts as Chris Matthews’ Hardball.

Students Are the Winners

On October 2, 2008, the Washington University community welcomed Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin to campus for the only vice presidential debate of the election season. Energized and enthused, students participated in the event in many exciting ways.

For most Washington University students, the opportunity to witness a presidential or vice presidential debate live comes along once in a college career, if they are lucky. For a University-record 432 students, that dream became reality October 2, 2008.

“You could feel the anticipation in the hall before the debate started, and everyone seemed to know this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the political process up close,” says freshman Alicia DiGiammarino, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12.

Megan Petra, second-year doctoral student in social work, was the first name selected out of 7,942 students entered in the student ticket lottery; a total of 432 saw the debate live.

As in past debates (1992, 2000, 2004), the University received tickets from the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). All tickets received were made available to students via a ticket lottery, held September 26.

This time, the lottery was more popular than at any other University-hosted debate, with 7,942 undergraduate and graduate students applying for tickets. A computer program made the random selections, and those lucky enough to be chosen received notification via e-mail.

Earth sciences graduate student Bamidele Otemuyiwa was the second student selected.

“I felt really lucky knowing that I was going to get in,” Otemuyiwa says. “I could hardly believe my luck that my name came out second out of nearly 8,000 people. Seeing the debate live was an amazing experience.”

Yet student participation was not limited to seeing the debate “live.” Students engaged themselves in multiple ways: some volunteered, some covered the event with student media outlets, some attended pre- and post-debate events, and many watched at numerous on-campus remote sites.

Of the more than 500 University students who applied to be volunteers, 200 gained valuable experience in logistics and media relations.

Students worked with the national news media, helped in the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) office and the press office, led tours of the debate facility, and supported engineering and staging aspects. Volunteers also provided hospitality for a variety of special events around campus and assisted with different efforts, including tickets, credentials, security, and parking. A small number of volunteers even worked in the debate hall on the night of the event as ushers and credential checkers.

How do you prompt college students out of bed before 5:30 a.m.? Correspondent Bob Schieffer and anchor Maggie Rodriguez found a way: They broadcast CBS’ The Early Show from campus on both Thursday, October 2, and Friday, October 3.

As a media runner, sophomore Shira Solomon, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11, directed media staff and moved their equipment into the debate hall. Solomon, who is considering a career in government and diplomacy, also ran errands for the CPD as a shuttle.

“Walking around with my volunteer credentials around my neck made me feel very important,” Solomon says. “I had the privilege of witnessing things I never would have been able to see through mere television broadcasting of the debate.”

Becky Light, a University College student studying journalism, assisted in the press office and served as a media runner.

“I was thrilled to be able to see how the press operates under stress and deadlines,” Light says. “The view from the news trenches was eye-opening to say the least.”

Working alongside the Secret Service, junior Fernando Cutz, Arts & Sciences Class of ’10, helped with security aspects. His role involved checking and securing the perimeter around campus and controlling access to the debate hall.

“It was so fun to learn more about the work of the Secret Service and to get to know the agents,” Cutz says.

Cutz also worked security in “Spin Alley” after the debate.

“Meeting Katie Couric, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Kit Bond, and several others was amazing,” he says. “I even appeared on live television behind CBS News, MSNBC, and FOX News during the ‘Spin Alley’ interviews.”

Other students had opportunities to engage the national and international media as CNN, C-SPAN, and Rock the Vote election buses were on campus, as were several high-profile national media shows, including CBS’ The Early Show and MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Perhaps not as well known were the student media personalities and outlets, yet they had the unique challenge of tying the historic event directly to the University.

Senior Buck Smith (far right) and junior Tim Taylor, both members of the football Bears, helped moderator Gwen Ifill to her chair. Ifill had broken her ankle earlier in the week.

Junior Sam Guzik, editor-in-chief of Student Life, and his counterparts from KWUR radio, WUTV cable television, and the Washington University Political Review joined forces to offer an array of live media coverage from the debate and from the Danforth University Center.

“We wanted to provide solid political reporting through the lens of the Washington University community,” Guzik, Arts & Sciences Class of ’10, says. “We were striving to tell the story of how students, faculty, and friends of the University were affected by and benefiting from the debate.”

The University’s student media also worked among thousands of credentialed journalists (3,100 requested credentials before the debate) from around the world.

“I operated a camera, taped interviews, and shot other video of ‘Spin Alley’ alongside the national media,” says junior Brian Whitaker, WUTV co-general manager and Arts & Sciences Class of ’10. “I just feel lucky to have witnessed what the national media do while learning a few of their tricks.”

Many students didn’t get such a close-up view of things, but they were engaged nonetheless.

Graham Chapel was one of six remote viewing sites on campus. Before the debate started, about 150 students had arranged themselves in the pews, most dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, some with political buttons pinned to their shirts, some carrying placards supporting their candidates. The pre-debate mood was light, but students were clearly eager for the show—isolated calls of “Woo hoo!” and “Yes!” came when the lights dimmed about 10 minutes before the start of the debate.

As president of Student Union, Brittany Perez, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09, welcomed those gathered inside the debate hall to the University. This capped her involvement in months of debate preparations.

The solemn ambience of the chapel likely set the energy level a notch or two lower than that of other remote sites. According to students who later came to the chapel for the post-debate discussion, viewers in Edison Theatre and the Danforth University Center were rowdy at times, with some heckling, laughing, applauding, cheering, and waving of banners. Other remote sites for students were Ursa’s Café, Whitaker Auditorium, and Lab Sciences Auditorium.

In Graham Chapel 30 minutes after the debate, about 50 students participated in the Red vs. Blue Post-Debate Program.

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online and a contributing editor to the National Review, and liberal commentator Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of The New Republic, led a lively discussion.

“This was far more fun than the actual debate,” says freshman David Lee, Engineering Class of ’12. “They brought up some things that didn’t occur to me when I was watching the debate.”

Other learning opportunities took place on campus throughout the first half of the semester.

From organizing voter registration drives to attending activities fairs and watch parties to building red and blue robots, the WUSTL student body was heavily involved in debate preparation.

A student sports a “Veep Debate” T-shirt. Student Union sold more than 2,000 of the shirts the week of the debate. Senior Sam Washburn, Art Class of ’09, designed the back (Matthew Strom designed the front, not pictured).

“I am really amazed at all the energy and enthusiasm generated by the debate and the election itself,” says Robin Hattori, program director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service. “Students have definitely shown that they care about the issues, and the youth vote is a vital force.”

Hattori said the debate challenged students to think about politics in new ways.

“Since funding was made available to students, a variety of programs emerged—everything from a political poetry slam focused on human rights to a panel discussion for international students to gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. election,” she says.

“Students are the ones who organized much of the programming surrounding the debate and the election season,” says Brittany Perez, president of Student Union and Arts & Sciences Class of ’09.

Of particular note are three engineering students, who created quite a stir on campus.

EnCouncil president Lee Cordova, a senior biomedical engineering major, and seniors Sam Wight and Matt Watkins, mechanical engineering majors, built red and blue robots that duked it out by the Danforth University Center before the debate.

Cordova, Wight, and Watkins used durable aluminum tubing for arms, sheet metal for bodies, and a backpack-like strap that allowed the robots to move and pivot with various students manning the controls. Though no ultimate winner was determined, students enjoyed seeing the robots in action.

“The colors are coincidental,” Cordova says. “We gave them different colors to tell them apart. But it soon became obvious there was political significance.”

The three had been working on the idea and fine-tuning the robots since Thurtene Carnival in spring 2007.

“EnCouncil always comes up with games to raise money for charity [at the carnival], and we hatched this idea,” Cordova says.

Overall, the Vice Presidential Debate featured not just two candidates, but amazing students, visitors, and supporting events—it was certainly the highlight of the semester on campus, and possibly for a very long time to come.

Compiled by Terri Nappier; contributing writers include Gwen Ericson, Tony Fitzpatrick, Blaire Leible Garwitz, Leslie McCarthy, Terri Nappier, and Neil Schoenherr.

For more information on the Vice Presidential Debate, please visit the October 9, 2008, issue of the Record: record.wustl.edu/issue/page/normal/1816.html