Hofstra pushes front-line learning with presidential debate

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) — Monday night's verbal smackdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a hot ticket on the campus of Hofstra University.

About 7,500 students, or more than two-thirds of the student body, entered the lottery for only a few hundred tickets to witness the cycle's first presidential debate, being held Monday night in a campus basketball arena.

More than 800 students applied for about 500 jobs as volunteer staff for the event.

Some will be helping in the media center, where thousands of journalists will gather to file stories as the debate unfolds. Others will be handing out credentials, shuttling VIPs, serving as network production assistants or working as debate hall ushers.

"It's the whole process of seeing what happens before it's on camera," said Madison Wright, a journalism major from Island Park, New York. She's already watched crews construct stages where network news crews will be reporting.

Qian Xiong, an exchange student from China and marketing major, will be posting on Chinese social media during the debate.

"This is a world event," she said, "so many people care about it."

Hofstra, a private university 25 miles east of New York City, was chosen in July to step in as a debate host after Wright State University in Ohio backed out.

The university, with an enrollment of 10,870, was able to put together logistical plans for the debate in about 60 days, building on its experience of having hosted debates in 2008 and 2012.

The lucky winners of the lottery for debate hall seats were to be notified over the weekend whether they're getting in.

"I do not have a strong background in politics, so having this here really gives me the opportunity to learn more about it," said Jordan Heiden, a senior from Southwick, Massachusetts, and debate volunteer who will be working in the media filing center.

The educational experience goes beyond the activities on the day of the debate.

Since the fall semester began two weeks ago, campus speakers have included former Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Democratic strategist David Axelrod — a former adviser to President Barack Obama — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Robinson and Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and Fox News contributor.

"The educational benefits for students are the primary reason why we do this," said Hofstra spokeswoman Karla Schuster. "The idea behind it is to get students engaged in the election and also remind them that they own the political process."

Hofstra political science professor Richard Himmelfarb said he finds most of his students are "really turned off by this election." Most view the election as a choice between the lesser of two evils.

"They're interested in the debate, but much in the same way as they view reality television," Himmelfarb said. "They're fascinated to see what happens when Donald Trump shows up on the national debate stage. I think they view it similar to a car crash; the 'anything can happen, unpredictability' aspect has their attention."

He said Hofstra has strived to use the event as a teaching tool. "The university has attempted to try and elevate the debate and they want students to consider more substantive questions."

Leana Gianan, a senior from Hanover, Maryland, said debate-related events also have been organized in residence halls, including a planned trivia night focusing on politics.

"There's a conversation that's always to be had," she said. "This kind of gives people the chance to talk about real issues and policies that are happening in our country."


Follow Eltman on Twitter at @feltman41.