“I met one of my political heroes (Bill Clinton) and the President of the United States (George H.W. Bush) in the same day.”
How many undergraduates can claim such exposure to the nation’s highest political leaders?
To date, at least a few students from Washington University can.
The host of three presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004 and now a vice presidential debate in 2008, the University provided four Student Union (SU) presidents the opportunities to meet the candidates.
As SU president in 1992, Gregg Walker, A.B. ’94 (economics), now vice president of mergers/acquisitions for Viacom, welcomed Clinton and Bush to campus.
“It was one of the single most exciting days of my life,” Walker said. “President Bush asked me questions about my role as (SU) president. He was prepared to chat for a while, almost as if he were a reporter conducting an interview.
“Gov. Clinton spoke to (me and the others) at length. I told him my family was rooting for him, and he seemed genuinely excited to hear that he had two votes in Pennsylvania.”
Walker, J.D., who earned a law degree from Yale University in 1997, described the experience as uplifting and illuminating, humbling and exhilarating.
Meeting the candidates is a definite bonus for SU presidents, yet it is only one of the many highlights during the preparation and execution of a debate.
SU presidents also sit on the University-wide debate planning committee. In this capacity, Michelle Purdy, A.B. ’01 (educational studies), M.A. ’03 (history), as the 2000 SU president, gained an insider’s view of how different University constituencies — administration, faculty, staff and students — work together on such a major event.
Purdy, who is pursuing a doctorate in educational studies at Emory University, also spearheaded a series of SU-sponsored events to get students involved; the year’s theme was “Our Concerns, Our Voices, Our Votes.”
The night of the event presents special opportunities: giving welcoming remarks to those in the debate hall on behalf of the student body and watching the event live.
“I also had the time of my life participating in a press conference the day (before) the debate … and seeing students energized about the event, whether they were in the debate hall or not,” Purdy said.
During each “debate season,” SU presidents lead the charge to raise political awareness and the level of discourse on campus.
For David Ader, B.S.B.A. ’06 (managerial economics and strategy), SU president in 2004, working with many student groups in the “Educate Yourself” forum series was memorable. Students from across the political spectrum brought relevant political speakers to campus to discuss issues from diverse viewpoints.
“Many people outside of the University saw the debate as a one-day event, but, in reality, it represented several months of planning and events,” said Ader, who works for Microsoft doing strategy and mergers and acquisitions for its Online Services and Windows Group. “It was inspiring to see how such an event could energize the student body and encourage such high levels of interest on relevant issues.”
For the current SU president, Brittany Perez, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09, being involved in the only vice presidential debate of the 2008 election is monumental.
“I have become more attuned to what is happening in our nation and have a vested interest in getting other college students involved,” Perez said.
A psychology and educational studies double major, both in Arts & Sciences, Perez said what she has experienced during the debate is only the beginning.
“I didn’t think I would want to further my time being involved in government and policymaking,” she said, “but after being a part of Student Union and being engrossed in the issues, I can’t help but think my life might be headed in that direction.”