A group of Illinois State students has been receiving a lesson in civic engagement and an inside look at history these past two weeks.
They are on hand this week in Philadelphia for Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. And last week in Cleveland they witnessed Donald Trump’s improbable pursuit of the Republican Party’s nomination become a reality.
The students are attending the conventions as part of an independent study course organized by Professor Erik Rankin and supported by Illinois State University’s American Democracy Project and the Department of Politics and Government.
Professor Thomas McClure led six students on the trip to the GOP’s main event, and Rankin is with 10 students at the Democratic convention.
“One of ISU’s biggest goals is civic engagement. Attending the conventions is the experiential component of civic engagement,” Rankin said. “It’s one thing to read about civic engagement. It’s another thing to be here and experience this.”
The students, who are mostly political science majors, have been able to meet politicians, delegates, and supporters from each party while working as volunteers at the conventions.
Illinois State junior Youssoupha Mbodji moved to the United States just five years ago from his native Senegal. Last week he spent much of his time chatting with Republican luminaries such as Karl Rove, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and Dr. Ben Carson and media stars like Anderson Cooper while volunteering at the GOP convention.
Mbodji said they were all friendly and a lot different than how the media portrayed them. Rove even gave him advice about staying in school. “He was like a father talking to his son,” Mbodji said.
Students at the Democratic convention spent one morning at a union-sponsored breakfast featuring every major Democratic politician in Illinois. Senior Elizabeth Lindsey said she got to talk at length with Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
“At the University, we really push civic engagement,” Lindsey said. “This is a wonderful place to do that.”
The students prepared for the conventions by reading about their respective parties’ platforms and about the 1968 national conventions, including the infamous Democratic event in Chicago that was marred by violence.
Things have been much quieter this time, despite the recent upheaval over police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement and the vocal dissension of some Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
“The atmosphere is very, very positive. They are very peaceful protests.” Lindsey said
Mbodji praised the security setup in Cleveland and downplayed the protests. “There were more journalists and police than protesters.”
Mbodji was impressed with Trump, despite being three things that the candidate supposedly opposes: black, Muslim, and an immigrant. “I check all of those boxes,” Mbodji said. “But I see a guy who loves his country and is tired of politicians lying.”
McClure said Trump’s message “Make America Great Again” took a backseat at the GOP convention to the party’s more unifying opposition to Hillary Clinton.
He also noted how Trump entered the Quicken Loans Arena shrouded in fog and with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” booming from the loudspeakers. “It felt like the beginning of a reality TV show.”
At the Democratic Convention, Lindsey loved first lady Michelle Obama’s much lauded speech Monday night and had been looking forward to hearing former President Bill Clinton speak Tuesday night. Students also planned to be inside the convention Thursday for Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.
Rankin hopes attending the conventions and having positive political experiences there will lead the students to become civically engaged their entire lives.
“From my perspective, I’m honored to be working at a university that supports civic engagement to the extent that it does and puts its money where its mouth is,” Rankin said.
The students were not the only Redbirds at the conventions. School of Communication alumnus Jeff Burnett ’16 volunteered as a reporter at the Republican National Convention. Burnett, who worked at Illinois State’s student-run TV-10, served on one of 10 digital media teams that created content for the Republican National Committee’s social media channels.
“We were there to do something new for the RNC,” Burnett said. “We accomplished the goal with flying colors.”
Within 10 minutes of starting his first assignment, he was asking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for an interview, and he later talked with former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate and a former Republican governor of New Mexico.
Burnett also enjoyed interviewing regular Republican supporters at the event, learning about their experiences and why they came to the convention.
“The really cool thing about it, it didn’t have to be hard-hitting news,” Burnett said.
Burnett said what struck him about the convention was that he saw so many young, vibrant people engaging positively in support of the Republican cause.
“I think a lot of people think of the Republican Party as a bunch of old white guys. That’s not what I saw.”
Here are the students who attended the Republican National Convention: Austin Bertschy, Jordan Luzzo, Youssoupha Mbodji, Daniel Munoz, Justin Reed, and Silas Scott. And here are the students who attended the Democratic National Convention: Tyler Carter, Kelly Franklin, Madeline Farrell, Caroline Kernan, Haley Kosik, Steve Kurz, Elizabeth Lindsey, Dayna Schickedanz, Michael Steele, and La’Rie Suttle.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.