Author: Sarah Corsa|Sarah Corsa|Sarah Corsa|Sarah Corsa|Sarah Corsa
Ohio is not most people’s idea of an exotic study abroad location. For junior Jordan Dias, however, it not only fit the criteria for his semester working on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, but proved to be just as culturally and geographically different as another country.
“It’s definitely been a big culture change,” Dias, a Southern California native, said. “Just the driving alone - there’s basically not a lot of traffic like at home there is. The people are much friendlier than in [Los Angeles.] They’re very hospitable and engaging.”
His 30-minute commute from where he is staying with a host family in Powell, Ohio, to the campaign headquarters in Columbus runs along a river, without the concrete banks and urban landscape of the L.A. equivalent.
Dias is one of the 32 Occidental students stationed around the U.S. this fall working on congressional or presidential campaigns of their choosing as part of the college’s third Campaign Semester.
Sophomore Shannon O’Hara’s post in Honolulu, Hawaii, working on Linda Lingle’s senate campaign is a little closer to a foreign locale.
“It’s such a different perspective on Hawaii and any vacation spot in general,” O’Hara said.
Lingle’s candidacy is unique as well. Lingle is an independent candidate getting funding from the Republican party, and an haole (Caucasian) who has been elected by the people of Hawaii multiple times. The locals call her “Gov,” an example of the informality O’Hara said she has experienced in Hawaii. Rather than catering towards wealthy CEOs, she talks with the restaurant workers and hotel maids that sustain the state’s tourism industry.
The participant’s six to seven day work weeks are filled with a myriad of activities from making phone calls and sending out mailings to bracketing opponent’s events in an attempt to win over undecided voters. The long days began the minute they stepped off the plane and often last 10 to 12 hours and late into the night.
Dias got the opportunity to ride with Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s motorcade through closed freeways from the airport to his hotel and on to an Ohio State football game.
Because the students are required to work in swing states, simply working on getting out the vote can be vital. Sophomore Karthik Raman is working on the Obama campaign in Philadelphia, Penn. where new voter identification laws have made it more complicated to vote. Residents are required to have forms of identification that have an expiration date such as a driver’s license, passport or any state issued identification. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation can issue a voter identification card if one has two proofs of residency, a Social Security card and a birth certificate.
Not everyone has access to these items and some cost money, specifically affecting the elderly, African American and the young urbanite population who are more likely to vote for Democrat. In states where elections can be decided by a few thousand votes, students could be the ones who inform or register that slim margin of voters.
Dias’ work on the Romney campaign in Ohio carries a particular amount of weight as well; since 1960, the winner of Ohio has gone on to win the over all presidential election.
“You could actually make a difference in the world,” Dias said.
The idea for a national study abroad-type program grew from student’s excitement over Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. An inspired group of these students turned to Urban and Environmental Policy professor and former campaign worker Peter Dreier to assess their options for getting involved. Although Dreier’s initial idea was to encourage students to take a leave of absence while they worked on a campaign like he had done as an undergraduate, it was not feasible for many students to take time off from school.
Campaign Semester was born to give Occidental students a full semester’s worth of credit for working on a House, Senate or presidential campaign of their choosing. While working, they stay with host families who are also involved in the campaign. According to Dreier, a staggering 19 students signed on the first year.
The midterm elections of 2010 caused minimal drop off, with 10 students participating in House and Senate races. Despite potential disillusionment after Obama’s first four years in office, students are still buzzing.
Numbers climbed even higher, and this semester a group of 32 Democrats and Republicans is working in the field, according to Dreier.
Because the program is open to any major or grade, some students have not even decided what they want to study yet.
“I’m kind of new to politics, but I thought what better way to learn than being directly in it,” O’Hara said.
Before their departure, students bring themselves up to speed on the campaign and write a paper describing the demographics of their chosen location. In addition, according to Dreier, they write journal entries and weekly emails back to their professors throughout the semester.
“They’ve all said the same thing: they’re working harder than they’ve ever worked before,” Dreier said.
After the election day, students return to Occidental to participate in a five-week seminar comparing their experiences around the country. Wider participation heralded the introduction of Republican campaigns to the program this year, promising to bring new perspectives to the post-semester discussion.
Although not all participants are politics majors, Campaign Semester can still be a formative step in creating opportunities for after graduation by leading to paid positions on future campaigns through the plethora of connections that are sustained from election to election. Raman’s official volunteer position on the Obama campaign is as an organizing fellow. He works with a field organizer to coordinate events in specific neighborhoods.
“There’s sort of like a campaign community,” Raman said. “I’ve met people who’ve done a similar version of the fellowship in 2008.” He added that many of these people have been contacted in 2010 and 2012 by Democrats and Independents who are interested in running for office to work on their campaigns.
Whether or not participants decide to go into politics after graduation, there is no doubt that Campaign Semester provides these students with a learning experience unparalleled by anything a typical classroom can offer.
“From what I know, we’re the only college that does this,” Dreier said.
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