Students at 2016 Debate

International Students Share Experiences Attending, Volunteering at 2016 Presidential Debate

Last Sunday the country’s attention was focused on Washington University as the presidential candidates from the two major political parties came to campus for their second debate of the 2016 election. This was the 5th presidential debate to be held here, giving WashU the honor of having hosted more presidential debates than any other institution.

In the last issue of the International Voice, we published an article about international students’ involvement in past presidential debates on campus. This year our international students again supported and participated in the presidential debate. In addition to Kenneth Sng, who played a high-profile role as Student Union President, a number of other international students also played significant support roles. Student volunteers were needed to help with everything from working directly with the Commission on Presidential Debates, to helping support and host the many media outlets that came to campus, to assisting other departments and programs that supported the event. Of the 894 students that applied, 235 student volunteers were selected to serve in these roles. A number of those chosen were international students. The international population was also represented among the 352 students who, through a lottery system, were awarded tickets to watch the event live inside the debate hall.

Some of the international students who attended and volunteered for the debate shared their experiences with us:

Wu Yang, China, Masters student in Architecture – Audience Member

Wu Yang was one of the lucky students who got a ticket to sit in the audience: “I feel so lucky and grateful to have this exciting opportunity as a part of the presidential debate. And Megyn Kelly was in front of my seat!”

Rachel Gu, China, Masters student in Accounting – Volunteer in the Debate Hall

Rachel Gu served as a student volunteer in the debate hall. She described the strict security, and what it was like to play the role of “town hall participant” during debate rehearsals:

“During the weekend, the security on campus was very strict. It was really important to bring credentials to get into the Athletic Complex. I also got the chance to see Anderson Cooper in the Debate Hall. Really lucky!”

The volunteer job of our team was to make sure that the recording devices such as cameras and microphones in the Debate Hall were working well. So what we did was role playing and mimicking the debate process on Saturday and Sunday morning. Two students were playing the role of Trump and Clinton, and two were acting as moderators (in the afternoon, the real moderator, Anderson Cooper, came to do the rehearsal). The rest of us, approximately 10 volunteers, were playing the roles of town-hall participants in the Debate Hall, which was very cold inside (it was 60 degrees if I have not remembered it wrong). During the rehearsal, “Trump” and “Clinton” answered daily life questions like “Do you prefer the DUC or the BD Dining Hall?” raised by us town hall participants. In the process of answering these questions, “Trump” and “Clinton” would walk around while talking to make sure the cameras were working right from every angle.  It was really interesting to be part of this role playing.

I am really glad to have been a volunteer for the presidential debate, and this experience was fantastic.”

Iris Yu, China, Masters student in Law – Volunteer in the Debate Hall

Along with Rachel, Iris Yu, also served as a stand in for town hall participants during rehearsal. She feels that the experience gave her a unique chance to learn about the American political system:

“With my access to the debate hall and other permitted areas, I got a chance to talk to different staff working for this debate, including planners, producers, reporters, and security, and ask them more questions. Ms. Moira Kelly, the associate producer, was our coach. She has joined the presidential debate preparations team for many years. She introduced us to more background knowledge about the debate. Through communication with all the staff, I learned more about how democracy works in the U.S., which offers a different view than my previous educational background. I could never experience such a political event in my country as we have a different political system. This was a great opportunity for me to learn more about American culture. Additionally, I was interviewed by the World Journal, a leading global Chinese news organization that reaches many millions of Chinese People, about what I was doing and my perspective on the event. The interview was used in print and on video. Some of my Chinese friends contacted me after they saw the article. This was truly a unique experience in my life.”

Emre Gunay, Turkey, Senior in Engineering – Volunteer in the Debate Hall

Emre Gunay says that being able to volunteer for the debates boosted his pride as a student of Washington University:

“It was a truly unprecedented experience to be a part of the debate organization, especially as an international student. Four years ago from today, I could not even dream about being feet away from the next president of the United States, but two days ago there I was letting high-level politicians into the debate hall, walking around CNN anchors and government officials, and watching two presidential candidates debate live. I almost became a celebrity myself back home; many of my friends and family were asking about what it felt like being in the debate hall. I truly appreciate the many opportunities WashU provides to its students and this was one of the numerous moments where my love and pride for my school spiked.”

Stefan Yu, Austria, Senior in Arts and Sciences – Volunteer in the Media Tent

Stefan Yu provided a description of his experiences and his duties helping with the media as well as the perks of being able to observe what goes on behind the scenes:

“As a volunteer, we had to be ready to receive our shift assignments on a moment’s notice. By the time CNN, FOX, and NBC began setting up around campus and I hadn’t received any notice of an incoming shift, I began to expect my irrelevance to the process. I was looking forward to playing a role in making the debate happen at WashU, and was worried I wouldn’t have the chance to contribute. Finally, I received my shift on Thursday afternoon and was assigned to the Bon Appetit Media Tent. Saturday afternoon I bounded to the Credential Distribution center in Knight Hall to pick up my volunteer pass and shirt, which would give me access to the restricted perimeter around the Athletic Complex. When I picked up my volunteer badge and saw my own face printed on it I thought to myself: this is the real deal!

Not knowing what working at the Bon Appetit Media Tent meant, I woke up on Sunday morning not really knowing what to expect. My specific role involved filling up ten-gallon water coolers and making sure there were enough debate water bottles and plastic cups set out for every media person to drink throughout the day. Along with 2-3 other volunteers, we carefully monitored the water supply throughout the day of the debate. It was surprisingly physical work to be carrying ten-gallon tanks 50 meters between the tent and the water dispenser.

Being in the Media Tent all day Sunday meant being among the bustle of global news outlets the entire day. Camera people, news reporters, writers, tech people, lighting crews – everybody who was contributing to make this event the media sensation it was.  Sponsored by Anheuser Busch, the tent could seat approximately 400 people at a time. By the end of the day, we probably handed out upwards of 1500 water bottles.

Naturally, the tent was constantly buzzing with the latest rumors and news of the debate. With media members walking in and out, sitting down to drink some specially-brewed Beer for the debate (Lilly’s Lager), or eat the Bon Appetit-sponsored food, I was privy to a lot of the news chatter. In my down time, I could watch the TV screens and see my fellow students crowding behind news cameras to get their faces on TV. I was able to sample the special Anheuser Busch brew (which was delicious!) and gain a collectible beer glass from the occasion as well.

I toured the Spin Room, the Media Room, and was able to get a behind-the-scenes look at all the media and preparations that took place for the 90-minute debate.  The atmosphere was vibrant all day, so instead of my scheduled two-hour break, I just left for an hour to recharge and was quickly back at the Athletic Complex to be a part of the buzz.

The experience was definitely unique, and to be part of this process as an international student was a real privilege. I observed the media hype surrounding a presidential debate and actively participated in making it happen, so thank you to WashU for providing me this opportunity!”

Han Liu, China, Sophomore in Arts and Sciences – Audience Member

Finally, Han Liu, who got a ticket to view the debate live, reflected on the privilege of witnessing such a significant event:

“It is a great pleasure for me and I feel so fortunate to have this privilege to witness such a historic event. I am very thankful to my Alma Mater who offered me such a precious opportunity and allowed me to be involved as a part of this community. As an international student, I never imagined that I could be so close to the focus of politics of a foreign country, especially the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world. It seems to me that the future of this country is being interpreted and presented in front of me. The debate this year is undoubtedly the most dramatic and concerning one within this millenary. I pay as much attention as many people in this nation to the election, because I am hoping the next president can find a way to solve the many tough problems and do his or her best to make better of this country that I am studying and living in for these four years and probably decades to come.”