Making a Difference at the Top

For Andra Belknap '09, Elena Fanjul-Debnam '10 and Dan Mitchell '08, supporting their candidates' bids for the White House means more than just slapping on a clever bumper sticker or wearing a campaign T-shirt.

These Pitzer College students, who interned in the offices of Senator Barack Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator John Edwards, participated in on-the-ground efforts to push each candidate closer to the 2008 democratic presidential nomination. These internships are greatly sought after by college students across the country and are outstanding opportunities to engage students in the political process. From door-to-door voter canvassing to interacting with campaign experts, our students broadened their educational experience and took a step closer to a career in politics, government, public policy or law. Their participation in these campaigns is especially critical as the candidates seek to capture the attention of young voters.

Andra Belknap '09

Hometown: Ojai, California
Major: Political Economy
Minor: Spanish
College Activities: Student Senate, Model U.N., Students for Responsible Consumer Spending
Career Aspirations: Public Service, Policy Advocacy

Last summer I worked as a research intern at Obama for America headquarters in Chicago. During the past semester, I interned with the Obama for America Finance Office for the Southwest Region in Los Angeles and also served as the volunteer coordinator for the Claremont Chapter of Students for Barack Obama.

What I have come to realize through working on this campaign is that I can only devote myself fully to causes that I truly believe in. There is work to be done on this campaign 24/7, and during the summer it was an honor to give all of my time to it. I also learned how to apply the writing, analytical and research skills developed while at Pitzer in the real world and under a significant time crunch.

I am so proud to be a part of this campaign, and have had some incredible experiences during the course of the past six months that I will never forget. I feel as if this is a campaign that will go down in history as something truly amazing. In his speeches, Senator Obama often says that this campaign is built upon “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” It sounds like a typical piece of campaign rhetoric, and normally I would take it as just a good sound byte, but I've really seen it happen. I've seen people who have never been engaged in politics before come to our campaign headquarters every day for full days of directing telephone calls, people showing up to rallies and waiting in massive lines on an unprecedented scale to see Senator Obama speak. This campaign is not only about winning an election, but revitalizing a tired electorate, and I cannot believe it, but I am seeing it happen.

I would not have devoted so much time and energy if I did not feel this was absolutely critical. I would not have spent the last six months of my life working on this campaign; I would not have walked door-to-door through the snow in Iowa; I would not have shouted myself hoarse in Nevada; I would not have spent my summer making spreadsheets in Chicago; I would not have made countless phone calls, if this campaign did not mean everything to me.

I will never forget when the news networks called the caucuses for Senator Obama while I was working in Iowa. I was in the midst of observing my precinct caucus when I received word from the campaign in the form of a text message. I felt in that moment that all of my work, and all of the work of the campaign as a whole, had paid off exponentially. I believe that when we won the Iowa caucuses, we changed history.

Elena Fanjul-Debnam '10

Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Major: Political Studies
College Activities: Lacrosse, Student Senate, Student Activities Committee, Model U.N., Democrats of The Claremont Colleges
Career Aspirations: Politics and International Relations, Law School

Last summer I worked eleven-hour days, six days a week at the John Edwards National Headquarters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The work was extremely challenging at times, but the experience was invaluable. I learned about communication, constituent support, networking and working as a team. But most importantly, I learned what it meant to be personally invested in the success of a candidate. By the end, I was truly passionate about John Edwards: the man, the candidate and the campaign.

I worked on the Young America for Edwards program as one of a four-member group. We developed the program from the ground up, by reaching out and listening to key youth leaders. I wrote quite a bit during my campaign internship in the political department. My writing skills improved tremendously as I learned to quickly express my ideas concisely and persuasively. I was also taught the importance of brainstorming in groups and then promptly taking action.

We built an interactive Web site page and rewrote key issues to be youth-friendly. We also made toolkits to teach and aid campus leaders in forming and maintaining a Young America for Edwards chapter. We brainstormed and enacted strategies that made the campaign and its supporters more socially responsible. We participated in a youth conference where we networked and discussed how to be successfully active on college campuses.

Our internship extended beyond the doors of our department. I also gained valuable experience in fundraising, on the Internet and with the administrative aspects of a campaign. On Fridays, I attended brown bag lunches where staffers expounded upon their past experiences—both inside and outside of politics.

During my internship, I gained not only a great deal of political skills, but I also learned the ins and outs of a political career— information that will undoubtedly help me in the years to come. I hope that it will make my job searching experience easier and will help me get the best job for me and my circumstances. It has made me consider going into other fields before joining a campaign professionally to acquire skills that will make me an asset.

I will forever be grateful for this experience and never forget my days on the campaign. There is an air about campaigns—an excitement, an urgency, a strong sense of pride and responsibility— something that you can only feel by being immersed and it creates a strong bond amongst the staff. It is not that this feeling was surprising— it was just unknown. I never guessed that taking a job for three months would leave me feeling emotionally invested in a candidate and the issues. It has profoundly affected my view of the world.

Dan Mitchell '08

Hometown: Palo Alto, California
Major: Political Studies
College Activities: Democrats of The Claremont Colleges, Student Senate, Student Investment Committee
Career Aspirations: Public Service

I applied and was accepted to work initially for Friends of Hillary, Senator Clinton's Senate re-election campaign. Shortly after I began working, the senator launched her Presidential Exploratory Committee. Luckily, I had placed myself in the right place at the right time working for the right people.

This internship taught me so much more about the political process and everything that goes into a national campaign. Specifically, this internship has taught me to be meticulous and efficient in everything from writing to researching. Paying attention to the details is critical as everything comes together in the end toward our shared goal of electing Senator Clinton president.

Living and working in Washington DC was a tremendous experience. I enjoyed a front-row seat observing how the governing process works, its triumphs and failures, and also an indepth look at how we choose who governs us. After working in the center of politics, I am aware of so many more opportunities that exist for young people looking to make a difference in America through public leadership, from working on Capitol Hill to campaigning across the country to lobbying on K Street.

This experience has opened my eyes to all of these possibilities. More than anything, I have learned the importance of truly believing in your cause and candidate. Campaigning is hard work, and often it is not glamorous, but if you believe passionately in the end goal, the work becomes fun.

Teamwork is also essential. One of the main reasons I had such an enjoyable and successful experience is because of the opportunity to work and learn from an outstanding group of professionals—some of the best in their field.

Before interning, I was perhaps a little cynical of the entire political process. Often people have negative perceptions of those who work in politics that are simply not true. This campaign is composed of a great group of people dedicated to turning this country around and improving the lives of all Americans. It is not just about winning, although that is obviously preferable, it is about changing the discussion back toward Democratic ideals, and working toward positive change for this country.

Senator Clinton is a terrific candidate. She has the experience, knowledge and talent to be a magnificent president. When I met her, she was warm, friendly and sincere. I have been extremely impressed with her energetic attitude and genuine interest in what each voter has to say.