Every Four Years, the Iowa Caucuses Transform LSU Students
by Robert Mann, Professor/Manship Chair, Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University
After more than 10 years of teaching college students about political campaigns, I’ve learned there is no substitute for hands-on experience. That’s why I push my students to volunteer for a campaign, find a part-time job at the Legislature or spend a summer doing an internship in Washington.
Politics is like learning to swim. If you want to know learn about it, there’s only so much I can teach you in the classroom. At some point, you must dive in.
That’s why I take a group of students to Iowa every four years for the presidential caucuses. It’s an immersive experience in presidential politics – and for many of my students, it’s transformative.
I always tell them they are going to meet most of the candidates in intimate settings. I’m sure they don’t believe me – until we get to Iowa and they see what retail presidential campaigning is really like.
They find themselves standing in a small room at a county library talking with Rick Santorum. They end up on a stage behind Hillary Clinton. They have lunch with Ron Paul. They talk SEC football with Newt Gingrich. They’re in the ballroom when Barack Obama declares victory on caucus night – and then they rush across town in time to watch as Hillary Clinton concedes. They spend caucus night in a hotel ballroom with Santorum’s supporters and watch as he declares victory.
And every election year, they come away changed, transformed.
“Our opportunities to come face to face with not only the candidates but also the national and local media covering the campaign trail brought eye-opening moments that I could not have experienced observing from my living room,” a former student recently said.
“Iowa of the Tiger was an invigorating wake-up call that journalism was what I wanted to do with my life,” one of my former students, now a successful journalist, wrote. “It was nothing short of inspiring to be in the same room with the likes of Bob Schieffer, Susan Page and Andrea Mitchell. The trip was the perfect combination of fun and educational, and it introduced me to new friends and future mentors.”
I’ve heard a dozen or more testimonies like that over the years. Iowa quite simply changes them.
When I talk to friends and students about Iowa, I never fail to brag about Ginger Gibson, one of my students in 2008 who went on the trip. Ginger was already a committed journalist, but the Iowa experience left her supercharged about her chosen profession. She graduated not long thereafter. Four years later, Ginger was in Iowa to greet another generation of LSU students at a Newt Gingrich event in Ames. This time, however, she was there as the Politico reporter assigned to cover the Gingrich campaign.
Attending the Iowa caucuses really does change these young people – and it’s why I’ll keep bringing my students to Des Moines as long as I’m able.