Author: Sarah Corsa
After America and Occidental College learned the results of the 2012 presidential election, the 32 students enrolled in Campaign Semester returned to Los Angeles to finish the last few weeks of the semester in an intensive seminar reflecting on and comparing their experiences.
Urban and Environmental Policy professor Peter Dreier and politics professor Regina Freer lead the class and help the students analyze the institutions in which they took part. Freer and Drier believe it is easy to get wrapped up in a given task while on the campaign trail, so they are attempting to ground the experience in a deeper understanding of American democracy. With a new frame of reference, the professors hope that students will look back on their campaigns and analyze what strategies worked and how they were different from other campaigns.
“When you’re working 60, 70 hours a week in the field, you don’t always have time to come up for air and think about the bigger questions about our political system,” Dreier said.
The class addresses pertinent issues for America today and in the future, such as the future of gay marriage, the acceptable amount of inequality, what it means to be a feminist and whether America is centrist or not. Students stand by their opinions during passionate discussions on controversial topics, backed up by class readings and their real-world experience.
Along with reading books and news articles and writing a paper connecting their work to their studies, students organize a presentation to illustrate what they learned to community members on and off campus. The medium can vary, and some students’ ideas range from making a movie, presenting to their former high school or facilitating a panel discussion for their fellow Occidental students.
Students must transition relatively quickly from the work world to academic life; adjusting their routines to accommodate the seminar that lasts five weeks and meets three days a week for two hours. Students must also adapt to the different atmosphere from the campaign trail to Occidental.
“You were coordinating volunteers [on the campaign], not analyzing Foucault,” politics major Zak Buschbach (sophomore) said. “Everything you do [at school] has a lot less weight. You’re not worried about the fate of the country.”
The variety of locations at which students worked at contribute to the depth of discussion. Students were stationed throughout the country in a variety of precincts, from predominantly black neighborhoods in Miami to conservative white areas in Hawaii. Although the various areas of the country provided different perspectives, every students’ work experiences were intense but rewarding.
“It’s a rush to win, it’s a different rush to lose, but either way you put so much of yourself in to it,” politics major Jessica Schneider (sophomore) said. “When it’s over, you kind of step back and say, ‘wow that was really cool.'”
The students’ work culminated on election night. Since the program required that students work in swing states, many of the races were not called until late into the night. Schneider, who worked on the Obama campaign in Virginia, spent the last hours of the campaign locked away in a boiler room making the last calculations and awaiting the results.
“It was actually great to be able to see [the results] come in with our fellow staff members that you’ve been spending so much time with,” Schneider said.
Politics major Mason Atkins (sophomore), on the other hand, attended the after party with political elites and fellow campaign workers for the Elizabeth Warren campaign in Massachusetts.
“I got to see the reactions of affluent members of the local politics, and it was really nice seeing that kind of support. We were crammed into a ballroom like sardines,” Atkins said. According to Dreier, 30 of the 32 students celebrated a victory for their candidate.
Some students say that their experience with the campaigns has given them a new perspective on political work. ”From working on the campaign so much, despite winning, I am more hesitant actually, to look for a career in a politician’s campaign just from seeing the work level and the kinds of hours being put in,” said Atkins. “If it’s a person that I love with all my heart, this person is going to change the country, I would consider doing it again.”
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