With Unique Course, Students Get First-Hand Experience Working Political Campaigns
“It’s a way for students to see the process of an election up close,” said Professor June Speakman, who’s taught her popular Campaigns and Elections class for close to 20 years.
BRISTOL, R.I. – From knocking on voters’ doors to running social media accounts, students in Professor June Speakman’s Campaigns and Elections course experience first-hand what it takes to run a political campaign.
“This course is unique; it allows students to work on campaigns and meet politicians. It doesn’t get any better than that,” said sophomore Kyle Lapolt, a Political Science major from East Hampton, Conn., who transferred to RWU last spring for the Political Science department. “I wanted to get involved in the political community in Rhode Island. I thought this course was the perfect way to do that.”
In Speakman’s Campaigns and Elections course, which runs every other fall semester (during presidential and midterm election seasons), students learn about the American political process, complete at least 10 hours of fieldwork by volunteering for a political campaign, and hear from local political candidates who visit their classes. Fieldwork can include canvassing, making phone calls, or other grassroots work.
“It’s a way for students to see the process of an election up close,” said Speakman, a Political Science professor who also serves as a state representative for District 68 in Warren and Bristol, R.I. “I hope it makes them more attentive to this important part of democracy.”
In class, students study elections, campaign strategies and techniques, the role of the media, and the forces that shape voting behavior. When it comes to their fieldwork, Speakman, who’s taught this class for about 20 years, said she encourages them to ask lots of questions.
“I try to make sure this isn’t just passive volunteer work but that they’re engaged and relating what they’ve learned in class to what they’re doing in the field,” she said, noting that students can volunteer for any candidate except for her.
Learning in the Field
Lapolt, who had never worked on a political campaign before this class, volunteered for Republican Ashley Kalus who ran for Rhode Island governor. As part of his canvassing duties, he knocked on close to 100 doors in Bristol and Tiverton, R.I., sharing Kalus’ campaign message and surveying voters. Sometimes he would just sit and chat with people, he said, adding that he learned a lot from the experience.
Despite having a couple of doors slammed in his face, “it was awesome,” said Lapolt, secretary for the College Republicans, a Student Senator, and a forward for the RWU Men’s Soccer team. “I wanted to canvas. I’ve always described myself as a people person.”
Mackenzie Morgenweck, a sophomore from Rehoboth, Mass., and an Accounting and Finance double major with a minor in Political Science, campaigned for Carol Doherty, a Democrat who ran for and won re-election for the 3rd Bristol District State Representative seat serving parts of Taunton and Easton, Mass. Morgenweck, who had worked for a couple of political campaigns prior to taking this class, said she was able to work closely with Doherty and help build a strategy for her social media campaign.
“I got to do more than getting out the vote, even though that is a central part. I had meetings with (Doherty) if I needed to,” said Morgenweck, a member of the College Democrats and Delta Sigma Pi, a business fraternity at RWU, who also serves as a resident assistant in Cedar Hall. “I enjoyed creating an environment to help push a common person forward and help my community by making sure this person got elected.”
Candidates Visit Class
Back in the classroom, Speakman invites Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated candidates to speak to her students and explain who they are, why they’re running for office, and share ways that students can get involved in their campaigns.
“It’s been amazing to have these politicians come in and speak to us,” said Morgenweck, a Democrat who said it’s been eye-opening to hear from candidates with diverse political backgrounds. “I’m even learning more about my own political identity.”
This fall, guest lecturers included Rhode Island’s U.S. Representative David Cicilline; Democrat Gregg Amore, who ran successfully for R.I. Secretary of State; Republican Aaron Guckian, who ran for lieutenant governor in R.I.; Democrat James Diossa and Republican James Lathrop who ran against each other for the R.I. General Treasurer position; as well as candidates running for local seats in Bristol.
Morgenweck – who hopes to combine her business and political science degrees to work as a municipal accountant, a business administrator for a town or school district, or a treasurer on larger political campaigns – said that learning from professors who have lived experiences, such as Speakman, has been extremely important to her own education. She’s been especially excited to study campaign finances in class, she added.
Both Morgenweck and Lapolt said that class discussions have been more than civil despite students’ differing views. “I think of the class as a think tank of future politicians,” Morgenweck said. “There’s never nasty politics. I like that about Roger’s political climate.”
Some of her former students have said that her Campaigns and Elections course started their involvement with public service, Speakman noted, adding that students have gone on to work in the government sector, some in Rhode Island politics.
For Lapolt, who aspires to attend law school and become a lobbyist and elected official after Roger, the course is providing him with a foundation to achieve those goals. “Professor Speakman is awesome. This course gives you a basic knowledge of who politicians are and what their goals are. As a lobbyist, that’s important,” he said. “That’s an extremely important part of this course and why I took it.”