Student volunteers gain experience in logistics, media relations

For 200 Washington University students, the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate was not merely a historical event — it also was a way to gain valuable experience with the media and politics.

More than 500 students applied to be volunteers. All volunteer candidates submitted a resume and cover letter as part of their application. In a screening process coordinated by Aimee Wittman, associate director of the Career Center, and Jennie Marchal, internship specialist, an initial group of about 200 applicants was selected by a review committee composed of representatives from all areas of the University community. Students were chosen based on their academic credentials, related experience and stated reasons for wanting to play a role in the event. In addition, the review committee named 100 applicants as alternates.

Student volunteers who served as ushers get instructions prior to the debate outside the debate hall. More than 500 students applied to be debate volunteers for a variety of duties.

“It was so great to see such incredible interest by people in the University community who wanted to get involved in the debate in some significant way, and that enthusiasm certainly contributed to Washington University hosting an outstanding debate,” Wittman said.

Most of the volunteers were assigned to jobs that kicked into high gear the week before the debate. Students assisted with a variety of aspects, including working with the national news media, helping in the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) office and the press office, leading tours of the debate facility and supporting engineering and staging aspects. Volunteers also provided hospitality for a variety of special events around campus and assisted with different efforts, including tickets, credentialing, security and parking. A small number of volunteers even worked in the debate hall on the night of the event as ushers and credential checkers.

Junior Dana Varinsky, who wants to pursue a career in the media, was on call the day of the debate as a CPD shuttle. Her duties entailed running errands and helping out wherever she was needed.

“I volunteered because I wanted exposure to the way the national news media operates at an event like this,” she said. “Although I was not assigned to work with them directly, I was still able to see how they covered the debate.”

As a media runner, sophomore Shira Solomon directed media staff and moved their equipment into the debate hall. Solomon, who is considering a career in government and diplomacy, also ran errands for the CPD as a shuttle.

“Walking around with my volunteer credentials around my neck made me feel very important,” she said. “I had the privilege of witnessing things I never would have been able to see through mere television broadcasting of the debate.”

Junior Becky Light assisted in the press office and served as a media runner.

“I was thrilled to be able to see how the press operates under stress and deadlines,” she said. “The view from the news trenches was eye-opening to say the least.”

Working alongside the Secret Service, junior Fernando Cutz helped with the security aspects of the debate. His role involved checking and securing the perimeter around campus and controlling access to the debate hall.

“It was so fun to learn more about the work of the Secret Service and to get to know the agents,” he said.

Cutz also worked security in “Spin Alley” after the debate.

“Meeting Katie Couric, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Kit Bond and several others was amazing,” Cutz said. “I even appeared on live television behind CBS News, MSNBC and FOX News during the ‘Spin Alley’ interviews.”

In addition to assisting with security, freshman Bryan Baird helped with media hospitality. He greeted reporters arriving at the airport, shuttled media personnel to the debate hall in a golf cart and served as an usher before the event.

“After driving ‘The Daily Show’s’ John Oliver around in a golf cart with him screaming frantically, I got him to autograph my American flag tie, making for a very memorable experience,” he said. “All of my friends back home, especially my high-school government teacher, will hear no end of this!”

Referring to himself as a debate “roadie,” junior Edward Lazzarin assisted the CPD with setting up sound, light and other production equipment.

“I have always wanted to know what it is like behind the scenes of major political events,” he said.

Some lucky students, such as freshman Bill Restemayer, worked on the debate floor the night of the event. Restemayer also served as a media correspondent for ABC.

“How could I pass up an opportunity like that? It really was an honor to be a volunteer on the debate floor during the actual debate, especially being just a freshman,” he said. “It was something totally unexpected.”