Campaign supernova

A political initiative at Occidental College allowing students course credit for political campaigning would be a good addition to the University

Newly re-elected President Obama — before he was the incumbent or U.S. senator — was a student. He attended Occidental College for two years before transferring to Columbia University, and it is the first of his alma maters that is now making headlines. An educative program at Occidental allows students to earn course credit for campaigning in political elections, with their grade independent of the electoral result. The “campaign semester” initiative at Occidental is another example of the Californian experimental spirit providing a template, in this case for peer institutions.

Occidental College is a liberal arts school of about 2,000 students located in a suburb of Los Angeles. The school is well-known for its famous alumnus: President Obama attended the school between 1979 and 1981. It was only when its former student had become president that Occidental decided to incorporate its “campaign semester,” in what has become a nifty opportunity for students.

The “campaign semester” is a program in which students can enroll during the fall. Occidental students — of any political ideology, background or major — are able to earn a full semester of college credits for working on a political campaign for the length of the semester. The campaign could be for a candidate of any party in a presidential or national congressional election, or the election for the state’s governor. This political flexibility allows “campaign semester” to occur on all even years. Nineteen students participated in 2008, the program’s inaugural year, with nine students taking advantage in 2010’s midterm elections. For the 2012 “campaign semester,” 32 students enrolled.

All interested students must do is get pre-approval for the campaign on which they will work. Some concerns could be raised here, since there seems hardly a robust measure to ensure that students campaigning in-state or abroad are doing requisite work. Plus, there could be concerns that only those campaigns that accord to a certain ideology are approved. Occidental College is predominantly Democratic and thus a majority of the campaigning students work for Democratic candidates. Besides criticizing the college for more strongly helping one party — by virtue of encouraging a certain campaigning demographic — there is also the problem that the professors entrusted with approving requests may favor specific candidates. Indeed, Occidental’s website says that Democratic or Republican campaigns will be accepted bar none, but students wanting to campaign for a “minor party” will need more extensive approval.

These caveats aside, the idea is intuitively good. Many students working on campaigns are not typically given compensation. Moreover, working for a political campaign isn’t afforded the same status as an internship — the inherently political bent of advocating for a supporter could dissuade future employers. Students with a regular class schedule hoping to help a campaign are often restricted to working on campus without the logistical resources of travel and time necessary for an active campaigner.

What “campaign semester” allows is an immersive experience — similar to a semester abroad. Just as activism had been in prior decades, for today’s students invested in politics there could be nothing more educative than working on a campaign. The University already provides integrated programs that combine internships and study abroad in financial or service-based contexts. Given the Jeffersonian mission of this school, adopting a campaigning program such as that at Occidental could help train a future politico.

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