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Students visiting the South Carolina State House where they witnessed a session of the Senate. They also spoke with representatives Micah Caskey and Mike Neese. (Photo by Dante Rubino)

Students visiting the South Carolina State House where they witnessed a session of the Senate. They also spoke with representatives Micah Caskey and Mike Neese. (Photo by Dante Rubino)

Students experience the frontlines of presidential campaign trail in ‘Road to the Whitehouse’ course

As part of the Road to the White House 2024 course, a group of 24 USF students traveled to South Carolina to work on the frontlines of the U.S. presidential campaign trail.

The 10-day internship experience segmented students into campaign experiences working for both the Republican campaigns of Donald J. Trump and Nikki Haley, as well as the Democratic state-wide campaigns leading up to the South Carolina primary on Feb. 25.

The course, offered through the College of Arts and Sciences School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and open to students of any major, consists of a total of 6 credit hours—3 seminar-based and 3 internship-based— and aims to provide students knowledge on the history and politics of U.S. presidential campaigns.

Dr. Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, associate professor, said this was the sixth cohort of students she’s taken on this experience and the first ever to South Carolina—normally they travel to New Hampshire.

“We can sit here in Davis Hall, and we can read a textbook about what a presidential campaign is, what a presidential campaign strategy is. But, unless you're actually in the thick of it, you can’t truly understand what it’s like. I’m a big believer in experiential learning,” Scourfield explained as to why she designed the course in this way.

Students experienced the whole gamut of what it takes to “win a presidential campaign,” she said.

Daily experiences included guest speakers during seminars at the hotel, followed by field trips to places such as the South Carolina State House in Columbia, the South Carolina Governor’s mansion, the South Carolina Democratic and Republican parties followed by campaign work in the afternoons and evenings including experiences such as “retail politics” at local diners, news conferences, rallies, phone banking, and canvassing.

  • Dr. Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies in CAS (center), with students in the “Road to the White House” course as they arrived in South Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Sanders)

  • Students visiting the South Carolina State House also learned about South Carolina history and political culture.  (Photo courtesy of Eran Fruehauf)

  • Panel of students sharing their post trip experiences with members of the community. Photographed from left: Maddox Johnson, Lana Sleiman, Steven Brown, Jasmine Farrar, and Dante Rubino. (Photo by Corey Lepak)

  • Students attending a Nikki Haley rally.  (Photo courtesy of Abigail Sanders)

  • The students presented Democratic South Carolina Representative Jermaine L. Johnson, Sr. with a certificate of appreciation during their time in South Carolina.

Students also updated a live class blog to recap their political campaign experience, which took place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 25.

Upon returning to Florida, the students showcased their experiences in a panel discussion held at the Poynter Library at the USF St. Petersburg campus.

“Every single person we spoke to on this trip is someone who wants the best for the country, I’m convinced of this. We disagree on what the best may be; we disagree on how to get there, but fundamentally, we're all Americans and we all want something good to happen to America. I think the firsthand experience we got here can tell us that these people are more like us than different from us, and they don't hate us. We need to work together. We need to talk to them. We need to ask their perspective,” Maddox Johnson, a political science student who worked in the South Carolina Democratic primary, said. “Because through that knowledge and through that understanding—which can't be received over news, trust me—we may have a better shot for being a unified people and a peaceful people in times that only seem more chaotic. And I think this trip really opened my eyes to that.”

Dante Rubino, who is majoring in economics and worked for the Nikki Haley campaign, described how he spent most of his time canvassing in both affluent and lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.

“I definitely spoke to a diverse group of voters,” he said. “I spoke to Democrats, trying to convince them to vote in the primary, I spoke to Trump supporters, spoke to Haley supporters, spoke to some people who never even had voted before and were completely disengaged in politics. It was just interesting because I had no political experience going into this, and I didn't really understand quite how much information there was in figuring out where we're going to put these offices, where the staging areas were and so on,” Rubino said.

For Lana Sleiman, a senior political science student minoring in French and francophone studies who worked the South Carolina Democratic primary, the most impactful part of the experience was engaging with Democratic South Carolina Representative Jermaine Johnson.

“His story and his background of how he got into the state legislature and how he never envisioned having his career there was really touching,” she said. “He came from a rough background and had a hard upbringing. Then, to see him use that as a motivation to want to change Congress—he's one of the youngest people in the South Carolina legislature right now—and to see him want to work with the youth and communities of color was really motivating because right now, as we can see, we're having a lot of issues with our nation's aging legislators. And, to see a breath of fresh air was really great.”

Political science student Steven Brown said speaking with individuals in the community while campaigning for Trump was an experience he will always remember.

“I can’t get this guy out of my head,” he said. “I was canvassing, and I talked to an 82-year-old immigrant who lived under Castro. He was the last house [to visit] and it was super cold. I started talking to the guy, you know making conversation—he's a big truck driver too—and he just started crying and telling me his life story, even trying to get us to come get dinner with him. It was heartfelt,” he said.

Jasmine Farrar, a political science major who worked the South Carolina Democratic primary, found the course to be impactful to her personally as she enters the stage of becoming a voter herself.

“For me this was really an insightful experience. Getting to learn more about the election process— because this is going to be my first year voting—and I want to be able to cast a vote that matters. I feel like I'm growing up in an age where the political sphere is really polarized. And, so, for me, Rep. Johnson was also a highlight. But beyond his motivational story, I found it inspiring how he's able to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans and come together for a firm solution. He was all about pushing for communities between the two parties. And I found that very admirable; I hope that we start seeing more people like Rep. Johnson in the future and maybe we can stop being so polarized.”

Learn more about the Road to the White House course offered through the College of Arts and Sciences School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies.

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CAS Chronicles is the monthly newsletter for the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, your source for the latest news, research, and events at CAS.