Nine Gallaudet students attended the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia

July 22, 2016

Author: Alexa Amster

The Democratic Party anticipated over 50,000 attendees at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 25-28, 2016. Among the attendees were Gallaudet University students who participated in the The Washington Center's Democratic Convention Seminar. They participated in a two-week program at Temple University from July 17-29, 2016.

Laurel Peterson and Kerie Scurry-Burns interned with cable news outlet CNN; Doris Alcantara, Maggie Kopp, and Ethan Sonnenstrahl worked with Fox News; and Jehanne McCullough, Irisa MacAulay, Michael Snyder, and Mary Harman interned with the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC).  

The opportunity to witness the U.S. political landscape during such an historic election intrigued the students.

"I mostly look forward to working with CNN as well as the historical ramifications of Hillary Clinton making history and becoming the first female Democratic nominee while getting a front row seat and seeing democracy in action," said Peterson.

The two-week seminar combined formal instruction, guest lectures, and fieldwork assignments, allowing interns to experience the DNC from behind the scenes and witness democratic practices in action at both the grassroots and national levels.

This was the fourth time that Gallaudet had sent a student delegation to the DNC and the second for Dr. Frances Marquez, associate professor of Government. Dr. Marquez led eight students at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado with Mairin Veith. This time Brendan Stern served as a faculty leader for the program. Stern participated in the program in 2004 as a Gallaudet undergraduate student when Senator John Kerry was the Democratic Nominee for President.

Experiences that allow students to fully immerse themselves in the democratic process are invaluable, according to Marquez. "This opportunity gives them a chance to directly learn how the political system works and prepare for a future career," said Marquez. "Working in politics is non-stop, and you have to be at your best all the time."

Notably in 2008, Leah Katz-Hernandez, '10, the current Receptionist of the United States (ROTUS) for President Barack Obama, participated in this program as did Jacob Leffler, '10, who interned for then-Senator Hillary Clinton. He has worked for USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah and is now an analyst in the Legislative Affairs Department at USAID. Katz-Hernandez and Leffler, were part of the first group of deaf young adults to work on a convention floor during a live television broadcast.

During the first week of the seminar program leading up to the convention, students attended guest lectures led by prominent political leaders such as Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Reverend Leah Daughtry, Convention CEO and scholars who discussed the history of political campaigns, convention procedures, and the role of the media. The first week also allowed the students to appreciate the historical significance of Philadelphia as the 2016 convention site.

"I am attracted to the historical background of the convention in Philadelphia, because of its origin as the first capital of America," said Snyder. "I am excited to do everything possible at the convention--listening to speakers, doing my field work duties, and socializing with other participants."

During the second half of the program, students volunteered on-site at the Wells Fargo Arena with their respective field work placements. Duties included participating in fieldwork assignments based on the organization to which they were assigned.

"I hope to understand how the Democratic National Convention (DNC) works and to gain valuable networking skills while being immersed in politics and history in the making," said Scurry-Burns.

The lack of representation of the deaf community in national politics made Gallaudet's presence at the convention even more significant.

"I always tell my students, 'If you do not have a seat at the policymaking table, you will not be represented in the decision making process,'" said Marquez. "I want to empower the next generation of deaf leaders to participate and engage in public policy. This experience will show them how the system works and to be prepared for a career in politics."

"I was fortunate enough to attend the DNC as an undergraduate at Gallaudet in 2004 as a part of the TWC program," said Stern. "Witnessing democracy in action had a life-lasting impact on me. It is a testament to Gallaudet's steadfast commitment to civic engagement that we are continuing this worthy tradition for our undergraduates."

Students saw an opportunity to advocate for underrepresented groups in the political realm.

"What attracted me to this opportunity is the current lack of diversity in politics," said Alcantara. "I find it is of the utmost importance to represent marginalized minority groups such as the Latino and deaf communities."

"I would like to be a part of our growing diversity in politics and the political climate," said Scurry-Burns. "I want to represent my deaf and hard of hearing community and African-Americans."

The participating students wrote journals about their experiences. Jehanne McCullough, who is writing a capstone thesis about Secretary Clinton's Campaign, shared insights throughout their time in Philadelphia through a blog. Upon returning to Gallaudet in the fall, they will organize a panel discussion to share their experiences working at the convention as well as promoting voter participation in November.

"I would want to encourage other students at Gallaudet by sharing my experiences from the convention and try my best to convince them to participate in this heated presidential race," said Snyder.

Click here to learn more about The Washington Center's Democratic National Convention: Academic Seminars.

Marquez and Stern thank Dr. David Penna, chair of government/professor of government, and Dr. Isaac Agboola, dean of the School of Education, Business, and Human Services for supporting the effort to send the students to The Washington Center's Democratic National Convention: Academic Seminars program.