Students Make Politics a ‘Primary’ Obsession

Posted: February 12, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Throughout the day today, presidential candidates will meet and woo Virginians as the primary race comes to the commonwealth. Interestingly enough, a whole group of Mason students have already been there, done that.

These students enrolled in an experiential learning course that took them to New Hampshire for an in-depth look at the election process earlier this year.

On the Campaign Trail class
Professor Lisa Gring-Pemble, far right, and members of her On the Campaign Trail class posed with Chelsea Clinton, center, on their trip to New Hampshire.

Janette Muir and Lisa Gring-Pemble, professors in Mason’s New Century College, accompanied 16 students to the New Hampshire primaries in early January as part of the two-credit course, On the Campaign Trail.

“Our goal was to visit the campaign headquarters of every candidate and to attend as many of their speeches and town hall meetings as we could,” says Muir.

But they weren’t just flies on the wall. True to New Century College’s mission, the students jumped right into the mix for a learning experience not quite like any other. Some chose to canvass neighborhoods for candidates, passing out literature to strangers. Others volunteered at a campaign headquarters. A few were even interviewed by radio, print and television media about their experience.

Above all, the students — some who know little about politics and some who are self-proclaimed “political junkies” — took it upon themselves to learn as much as they could about a candidate.

“Instead of just getting pictures, I searched for advice from and answers to questions I had from almost all the candidates I met,” says student David Preston. “An opportunity like this class is a big reason why I chose to go to Mason. The university offers things that most schools in the nation can’t offer in regard to politics and government.”

On the Campaign Trail class
Professor Janette Muir, far right, posed with students and former candidate Rudy Giuliani on the New Hampshire trip.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Gring-Pemble

For student Homa Azarani, who recently became a U.S. citizen, this trip was about figuring out who to vote for. “This will be my first election that I am able to vote in, and I am proud to say that I am going to make a very informative decision and vote for the candidate that best represents what I think the country needs,” she says.

Azarani was impressed with how personable the candidates were. She remembers meeting Barack Obama at a rally and introducing herself as a George Mason University student. “He remembered speaking at Mason last year,” she says. “I was so excited.”

“The important thing about this course is that it engages students,” says Gring-Pemble. “We hear a lot in the media about how young people are uninterested in politics and don’t vote. But we see that they do care, and care passionately. For many of these students —and even for myself — this experience was life-changing.”

Student Jeremy Miller was awed by watching the John Edwards campaign and how much work goes into keeping a campaign running. For Gring-Pemble, a highlight was hugging Hillary Clinton in a donut shop — and finding that video all over the Internet and television, including the “Today” show.

On the way home from the trip, Muir and Gring-Pemble polled the students and discovered that many of the students had changed their mind about the candidate they liked.

“For many, it wasn’t about Democrat or Republican — it was about looking at the candidate and the issues,” says Muir. “I’ve taught this class before, and this was, by far, the most transformative experience with young people and politics that I’ve seen.”

As part of their course work, the students will do an in-depth analysis of the issues and choose a candidate to write about. They are also keeping a journal about their experience and plan to get together to watch the primary race unfold. Some will present a poster at Mason’s Innovations 2008 this spring.

Muir and Gring-Pemble are currently using this experience and other research to write about young voters, their awareness of campaign issues and what they learn from these personal opportunities on the campaign trail.

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