Student volunteers: In the center of the action

Students have many great opportunities to volunteer. Here, they test the CNN set on Beaumont Pavilion in Brookings Quadrangle. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

Students have many great opportunities to volunteer. Here, they test the CNN set on Beaumont Pavilion in Brookings Quadrangle. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

The hottest ticket at Washington University in St. Louis weekend is entry into the presidential debate. The second-highest prize, though, is a volunteer job that lands the lucky worker close to the action.

Graduate student Megan Bertsche “was absolutely thrilled” to find out she will be an usher during the debate. “Being in the center of the action is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” said Bertsche, a first-year student in the School of Medicine’s clinical audiology program from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “On Sunday, all eyes will be on WashU, and witnessing the operation in full-swing will be extraordinary.”

Determining who gets sought-after volunteer positions falls to Aimee Wittman, director of career services in the Career Center, and Jennie Marchal, associate director for employer relations in the Career Center. The two had the formidable task of sorting through the 894 student volunteer applications submitted by the summer deadline.

Wittman and Marchal matched volunteers’ availability with the needs of the Commission on Presidential Debates, national media outlets and university departments that are managing programs and events in support of the debate. Of the applicants, 235 students were selected for positions by the end of last week.

“We had been working on it every minute of every day, but, as you can imagine, it was a beast,” Marchal said.

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton has said that the top reason for seeking to host a debate is to create a wonderful learning experiences for students.

Sophomore Sam Cohen also has been selected to usher during the debate. “I was super excited when I got the assignment. Honestly, I am just glad to help out in any way that I can,” said Cohen, an economics major in Arts & Sciences from Needham, Massachusetts. “I certainly want to see how the candidates act in real life, seeing their body language, and to just feel the atmosphere.”

Bru Hickey (left) and Ellen Birch tape signs in the media filing center. Their volunteer jobs with the Commission on Presidential Debates are giving them a behind-the-scenes look during debate preparations.

Bru Hickey (left) and Ellen Birch tape signs in the media filing center. Their volunteer jobs with the Commission on Presidential Debates are giving them a behind-the-scenes look during debate preparations. (Photo: Julie Kennedy/Washington University)

Student volunteer jobs include working with national media outlets (handing out credentials, running errands and directing media around campus); helping the Commission on Presidential Debates; working at the alumni and community watch parties; driving golf carts; acting as bus and parking attendants; even collecting items for the University Archives.

Abby Baka, a sophomore majoring in anthropology and linguistics in Arts & Sciences, is responsible for gathering paper documents circulated in the media filing center, such as transcripts of speeches or fact sheets from the campaigns. These documents will be added to the University Archives debate collection.

“I wanted to be involved as a debate volunteer because I am interested in politics,” said Baka, who is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I knew that it was unlikely I would get a ticket to see the debate, but I still wanted to be involved with the event.”

Bru Hickey, a student in the Brown School from Killingworth, Connecticut, said she wanted to be a part of this moment in the nation’s history, especially since this is the first time a woman candidate will participate in a presidential debate. Hickey and Ellen Birch, a sophomore art history major in Arts & Sciences, were assigned to help the CPD press office. On Thursday, they helped affix numbered placards to long rows of tables marking where members of the media are assigned to sit in the media filing center.

Hickey noted that even the smallest job contributes to the larger debate effort. “Every hand helps make this happen,” she said.

Birch added, “I thought this would be a great way to be involved and to know what was going on behind the scenes.”

Hickey and Birch are both hoping to see Hillary Clinton. “That would be an ideal experience. And meeting Anderson Cooper, that would be at the top of my list,” said Hickey, laughing.

Meanwhile, Chad Schwam, a freshman in the Olin Business School from Armonk, New York, is part of the student ticket distribution team, “which I gather will involve giving out tickets to students who received debate tickets from the lottery.

“I got involved because being on the same campus as a presidential debate is an opportunity that doesn’t come along multiple times,” he said. “I wanted to be as close to the action as possible, whether that involved being in the debate hall or not.”

A collective effort helps make the debate possible, whether volunteers are ushering in the debate hall feet away from the candidates or handing out tickets to lucky classmates.

“We are so grateful to our debate volunteers,” Wittman said. “They serve an incredibly important role in supporting the success of the debate at Washington University. Every volunteer position matters, and each volunteer contributes to this event.”