Students urge activism, learn about caucuses in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa — To the 20 Northwestern students who traveled here two days ago, community service means more than planting gardens or tutoring children.

It also encompasses political action — in this case, the ability to help the Democratic candidates competing to win Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

“Turning in a ballot doesn’t make you feel like you’re making or breaking political decisions,” said Joe Curnow, an Education junior who joined two other students in volunteering for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. “The caucus is different from casting an absentee ballot in a dorm room some 5,000 miles away.”

In the daylight hours before Monday’s Iowa caucuses — the first step in electing the Democratic presidential candidate — Curnow and the other students contributed to Edwards’ effort by making phone calls at his headquarters and distributing fliers in local neighborhoods.

The students traveled to Iowa with a group of 17 others on a two-day field trip organized by the Service Learning Certificate Program, which combines coursework in the School of Education and Social Policy with community service. The program provided the students with the chance to spend time volunteering for the candidate of their choice while learning about the Iowa caucus system.

“The Service Learning Certificate Program is about giving people the opportunity to apply their brains and their skills in the real world,” said Rob Donahue, a program coordinator who chaperoned the trip. “That’s usually done by traditional community service, but it can also be done by political action.”

Ten students chose to work for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, three selected Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, three went to Edwards’ headquarters and the remaining four threw their support behind the bid of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

Students said they were excited to brush elbows with political bigwigs and recognizable media figures while working on their respective campaigns.

Lauren DeBatty and Lauren Parnell, both Education freshmen, spoke with Edwards after he finished a speech at a grocery store in Des Moines. He shook both of their hands and asked for their names, DeBatty said.

“It solidified my belief that he is a man of the people, (because he is) making speeches at local areas where everyone goes to and is meeting people who are supporting him, not just giving him money,” she said.

On a break from working for Dean’s campaign, Communication junior Erin Mobley and several other volunteers met Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in a local restaurant. They took a picture with him and discussed their political views, she said.

Most volunteers spent their day chatting with Iowa locals — either on the phone or in person — and trying to win over potential voters by knocking on doors in local neighborhoods.

Donahue said most of the students who came on the trip were “typical students” interested in the political process and not “hard-core activists.”

“I didn’t know much about the candidates,” said Caroline Speirs, an Education junior volunteering for the Kerry campaign. “I just wanted to get more first-hand experience with the whole thing.”

Speirs joined Education seniors Laura Beres and Emily Blakeslee at Kerry’s headquarters, where the students fielded phone calls from Iowa residents and ran errands for other campaign volunteers.

“You hear so much that Americans are complacent, but the phone’s been ringing off the hook,” Speirs said. “It’s exciting. You kind of get wrapped up in it all.”