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Politically Savvy

Undergrads Stay Active in National and Local Campaigns

With New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary rumbling through Hanover every four years, each Dartmouth student has the opportunity, once during his or her college career, to delve into the Granite State's famous "retail politics."

Linda Fowler introduces Democratic presidential candidates at the January 2004 candidates debate on women's issue
The Rockefeller Center's Linda Fowler introduces Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean, Joseph Lieberman, and Dennis Kucinich at the January 2004 candidates debate on women's issue (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

This year, those who did participate got involved at a new depth and with a new level of expertise, says Linda Fowler, Frank J. Reagan 1909 Professor of Policy Studies and director of the Rockefeller Center. Each year, about 300 students take part through the center in discussion groups and talks by visitors on public affairs.

"It used to be the case that candidates would show up and ask for volunteers, and they were looking for people to stuff envelopes, go to meetings, and stand on windy corners waving signs," Fowler says. But this year, she adds, the Dartmouth students who are taking part in politics "have really become quite savvy. So they're holding positions of serious responsibility in local organizations.

"They seem to be much more inside the campaign organizations and really part of the teams in a way that I haven't seen before. It's just wonderful. And, of course, the experiences they're getting-how to work with diverse groups of people, build a team, get volunteers to do things, participate in organizational decisions in a constructive way-these are all quite transferable."

Sarah Ayres '06 and Rebecca Heller '05 are two undergraduates who have gathered and used that kind of expertise: Ayres in national politics, Heller in the local arena.

Ayres earned some campaign stripes working on the New Hampshire U.S. Senate campaign two years ago-in her case, for Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. Then, last February in Washington, D.C., for a gathering of the College Democrats of America, she dropped in on the winter conference of the Democratic National Committee and heard the speech in which Howard Dean declared, "I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party."

That pulled Ayres into the thick of Dean's campaign. She took the summer and fall terms off to work 12-hour days, six days a week, as an area organizer, responsible for the New Hampshire communities of Hanover, Lebanon, and Lyme.

"The thing that was really incredible to me about the Dean campaign was the sense of unity," Ayres says. "It was really, truly grassroots." After Dean faded here, she reflects, "it was easy for me and everyone else who worked so hard on the campaign to feel discouraged. But if you look at how Dean changed the debate, it feels great. It feels like we really did make a difference."

In recent years, as campaigns have courted a rapidly proliferating press corps, students have also had the opportunity to participate in, and learn about, how the national media works as it covers the candidates. In 1999, CNN held two live "town meetings" in Moore Theatre that attracted international media attention for over three days. More recently, the Lifetime Network and ABC News held a debate on issues of concern to women, and CNN was back, broadcasting its popular show Crossfire live from the Hopkins Center. This front-row seat on the political process is a unique opportunity and an incomparable learning experience.

"People Need to Get Out There"

Along with the Rockefeller Center on campus, the Dickey Center for International Understanding, with its activities linked to world affairs, can be another springboard for student involvement in politics. And in the spring, summer, and fall terms, the Montgomery Endowment will bring expert speakers to Dartmouth to further engage students in the presidential election process. Richard Reeves, former chief political correspondent for The New York Times, Robert Dallek, one of the nation's most distinguished presidential historians, and former Times columnist Russell Baker will "talk politics" with students and faculty over dinner and other informal gatherings while in residence at Montgomery House.

Crowd supporting Nelson Rockefeller's campaign for president in 1963
Crowd supporting Nelson Rockefeller's campaign for president in 1963 (photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections)

The community service that many students do through the Tucker Foundation often moves them toward political engagement. That was Rebecca Heller's path.

Last year, Heller got involved with a Tucker Foundation effort to combine service and advocacy, with a focus on affordable housing. She pulled together a group of students to help her work on the issue. Then last spring, the town of Hanover put up for local vote an article proposing to allocate land for 60 units of affordable housing. Working as a Tucker Foundation intern, Heller led a student effort to get the article passed. Around 30 students organized a campus awareness event, postered the town, and went door to door.

The article was overwhelmingly approved, and Heller went on last summer to organize Harvest for the Hungry, recruiting about 60 students and other area volunteers to harvest ungathered food from area fields after the fall harvest and use it to prepare dishes for distribution through area food shelves. She's now cooking up new anti-hunger initiatives.

Heller says she has learned that more students tend to be drawn into national-level than local politics. She is working to change that. "I think the best way to get students involved is not to sit and talk about issues; people need to get out there and see for themselves. I'm focusing on getting students out to see the issues and using that as a jumping-off point."

Another undergrad who's had a vantage point to observe students in politics is David Kerem '05, whose part-time job with Dartmouth's Office of Public Affairs put him in the midst of preparations for the presidential candidates debate on women's issues in January.

"There was an electrical feeling-a lot of energy," Kerem says. "A lot of Dartmouth students were involved." But Kerem adds that he believes Dartmouth students would engage themselves in politics, first primary or no.

"I think you could put them anywhere and they would get motivated," he reflects, noting that government is among the most popular majors on campus. "The kids here are very serious. They are very involved."

- By Doug Wilhelm

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Last Updated: 5/30/08