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Presidential debate has Hofstra in ‘Go’ mode, official says

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, Hofstra University faculty and students talked about their excitement over hosting the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday. About 400 students have volunteered to help, classes have been formulated around the debate and the campus is buzzing about the opportunity to be a part of a historic event. Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely

The tents are up. The stages are built. Thousands of feet of Ethernet cable are laid.

An inflatable White House bouncy castle will arrive Sunday.

Hofstra University officials, faculty and students are in super-high gear, with the countdown to Monday night’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump bringing hype and hard work to every corner of campus.

“I’m so excited to see this thing come to fruition. We’ve been walking around campus for weeks now, seeing the signs go up, and we’ve seen media come to our school. And now we’re just wanting for the 26th to come,” said Damian Gallagher, 21, the Student Government Association president and a political science major from York, Pennsylvania.

The crunch-time excitement is palpable — an all-out larger effort than in 2012 or 2008, when Hofstra hosted presidential debates. This time around, there were only nine weeks to formally prepare.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization that produces the event, informed the Hempstead school in July that it was being tapped for the first debate. Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, had announced its withdrawal as host, citing cost and security concerns, and Hofstra had been on the commission’s list as an alternate since September 2015.

Among those most anticipating Monday’s debate are the 400 trained student volunteers performing about 40 different types of duties. The students will run last-minute errands, act as ushers for members of the audience and work with the scores of national and international media outlets descending upon campus Thursday and remaining into Tuesday.

“We are in ‘Go’ mode,” said Jean Peden Christodoulou, assistant vice president for student affairs. Her office is the command center for student volunteers, where more than 800 students applied to be part of the effort. “There is a lot to do but in a really exciting way — and everyone is all in.”

For students who aren’t volunteering, the debate in the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex is the hottest ticket in town. The passes are free but very hard to come by.

About 1,000 seats inside the center will be available, commission officials said. All tickets allotted to the university, expected to be a few hundred, are going into a lottery for students; the rest will be parceled out to the two campaigns, the commission’s sponsors and donors, media and security.

Hofstra has said president Stuart Rabinowitz won’t even get to go inside and has plans to watch from another location.

More than 7,000 students put their names into the lottery, with winners to be announced this weekend. The school’s total enrollment is about 11,000.

Student volunteer Tej Jai, 24, of East Meadow, found out he will be an usher inside the debate hall.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to actually be inside the debate hall and witness a historical event,” said Jai, a graduate student studying accounting. “To see the candidates battling it out in their home state is going to be an amazing experience.”

Qian Xiong, 23, an international student from Nanchang, China, said she feels so lucky to have been selected as a student volunteer. The marketing graduate student will be part of the social media team, live-tweeting the debate specifically for a Chinese audience.

“I feel so much energy from the university right now,” she said. “I really can feel the pride and it is awesome.”

Since the first day of classes on Sept. 6, educators from all disciplines have tied their curricula to the election and the coming debate. Scholars, political commentators and former government officials have converged in dozens of educational programs for both students and members of the community.

“What we want to do is help shape the conversation in advance of the debate,” said Phil LaRue, director of government relations for the Concord Coalition. Earlier this week, LaRue and others from the nonpartisan, Washington D.C.-based think tank held an afternoon workshop inside a campus center, where about 75 students gathered in groups to create a mock federal budget based on decisions to real questions that lawmakers face on spending.

Meena Bose, director of Hofstra’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency and a political science professor, said the discussions and events tied to the debate bring the classroom into the public sphere, engaging students in a unique educational experience.

“Hofstra students are shaping the conversation in an important way,” said Bose, who brought her first-year American politics students to the workshop. “Some of them will have a front-row seat to the debate, but in general we have so many people coming to campus and bringing the issues that matter.”

Haley Brennan, 18, a first-year student from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, said many of the physical preparations for the debate had not been noticeable to students. That is, until this week — when it literally stopped her cold.

“The other day I went to go to class and I was fenced-in because they built a new fence,” said Brennan, referring to the tall black metal security gates lining the perimeter of the north side of campus, where most of the debate activity will happen. “So I had to find another way to get to class. I was a little late.”

The minor inconvenience was worth it, she said.

“I’ve been here a week and a half and I’ve already met David Axelrod,” Brennan said of her encounter with the former chief strategist and senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “It’s just so surreal.”


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