The student-run Debate Fair, held Oct. 9 just hours before the actual debate, featured local food, a range of activities, prizes and debate-swag giveaways, but it was way more than fun and games. The fair’s central premise was to engage students with the issues surrounding the election and encourage them to vote.
Cassie Hwang, a senior in Olin Business School, was one of the hundreds of students who came out to the Danforth University Center courtyard for the fair. “I’m here to learn more about what’s going to happen next, to be part of the generation that could change things for the better,” Hwang said. “I think it’s important that we’re informed and involved.”
Rahmi Elahjji, a senior in Arts & Sciences and a member of Student Union’s programming committee, was organizer for the Debate Fair. “Our job was to put on large-scale programs for the entire student body leading up to the debate,” Elahjji said. “Knowing a lot of students wouldn’t be able to attend the debate live, we wanted to host something that could bring everyone together and that could engage the student body in a way the debate itself might not have allowed. The turnout was actually way larger than we could have anticipated.”
The central attraction was a series of table displays highlighting issues important to student groups on campus. “Each student group brought materials and then presented on why they chose their particular issue,” Elahjji said. “We organized the fair into different issue areas, such as foreign policy, education and health care. We had people enter through the main fair entrance and then rotated them through — at the end there were prizes and food and other activities.
“Our hope was that participants engage with the student groups and see how strong advocacy efforts are here and what people are passionate about on campus,” Elahjji said.
Rosalind Byrd, a senior and president of the Association of Black Students, represented the Black Lives Matter movement. “We really wanted to bring attention to issues that not only affect people who are members of the black community at WashU, but members of the black community throughout the U.S. and worldwide,” Byrd said.
Other groups in attendance included SARAH (Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Hotline), WU Underground, City Faces, Women in Computer Science, the Iranian Cultural Society, Student Organ Donation Advocates and more.
“So far it has been a really good opportunity for me to gain some understanding on different perspectives, and gain a better understanding, which is nice,” said Eric Freeman, a sophomore.
After rotating through the different groups, students enjoyed ice cream from Clementine’s Naughty and Nice Creamery and WashU’s social media pop-up tent.
The Debate Fair also offered a photo booth where students had their pictures taken in front of a green screen later to be filled in by an image of the candidates or past presidents. “Students could choose whoever they wanted, whether it’s the two candidates debating here or Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama, all with a background of the Oval Office,” Johnson said. “We printed out the photos and gave students a copy to keep.”
Another feature, which also appeared during activities associated with the vice presidential debate in 2008, was “Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots,” where students could engage in a mock bout between a blue robot, representing Hillary Clinton, and a red one for Donald Trump. The robots were built and sponsored by EnCouncil, the undergraduate student council for the School of Engineering & Applied Science.
“We hope to bring a more light-hearted [phenomenon] to a rather intense, serious topic for a lot of people; we just want people to have fun.”
Overall, it seems students enjoyed the entire fair. “It exceeded our expectations both in terms of excitement and the number of people attending. Everybody had a great time,” Elahjji said.
“I came mainly for the ice cream,” said sophomore Bilal Hyder, “and then I realized there were a lot of interesting tables set up, and I learned more than I knew before about this campus and the groups here. All of this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
A week of student programming
The Debate Fair, along with several student watch parties immediately after, culminated more than a week of debate-related student programming:
Campus Crossfire, Sept. 29 — College Democrats and College Republicans debated each other in Olin Business School’s Frick Forum, with St. Louis Public Radio’s political reporter Jo Mannies moderating.
Spoon University, Oct. 3–7 — Students were given food samples throughout the week of the candidates’ favorite foods or traditional dishes from their native cities.
Perspectives on the Presidential Debate: Bridging Understanding, Oct. 5 — The panel discussion brought together representatives from seven student groups — The Asian Pacific Islander American Initiative, Ashoka, Association of Black Students, Association of Latin American Students, People Like Us and Pride — to discuss what’s at stake in the presidential debates.