The Trail Starts Here: Winter Term course takes Elon students to the center of the 2020 presidential race

Faculty members Rich Landesberg and Mark Dalhouse led Elon students to Des Moines, Iowa, where they were introduced to the culture of media and politics just days before the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

The Winter Term course titled Iowa: The Trail Starts Here led 28 students to Des Moines as the Hawkeye State prepared for the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

During the 12-day trip, Elon students were placed in the political heart of the country. Iowa is where the first round of votes are cast to help declare the Democratic nominee for the upcoming presidential election. Therefore, this trip gave Elon students the opportunity to directly interact with news outlets and presidential campaigns while simultaneously developing a better understanding of Iowa’s political culture during the election season.

The Winter Term course began and ended at Elon’s campus. The class included not only work on the ground, but also readings and in-depth discussions about past caucuses, the general election process, Iowa culture and history, and other related topics. Students then drew conclusions from that coursework and connected it to everything they worked on once on the ground in Iowa.

Many Americans look at Iowa as the kickoff to the 2020 general election season. Weeks before the actual night of the caucus, the presidential candidates travel throughout the state to speak at events in an effort to gain support from voters. This in turn causes Iowa to attract a lot of attention from politicians and media outlets. Elon students were given a front-row seat to witness these events and engage with important figures in both politics and the media.

Elon students, mostly journalism or political science majors, were given two options while on the trip. One of these options included working and volunteering for a presidential campaign. Elon had students working for the Democratic National Committee, Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker. As volunteers, Elon students canvassed neighborhoods, engaging with Iowans and asking them questions about the caucuses. They also discussed the candidate they worked for as well as why they chose to support or work for them. Canvassing is a popular way for presidential candidates to campaign, especially leading up to the caucuses.

Additionally, Elon students assisted with phonebanking, calling Iowa residents across the state and engaging them in conversations about the political candidates. Elon students, who worked as campaign volunteers, phonebanked from the campaign headquarters or even from a hotel lobby on days when Iowa received snow. Other activities included working and organizing the candidate town hall events that occurred across the state.

Jack Corby ’22 was among the students who worked for a campaign in Iowa. Corby spent his days canvassing, phonebanking and working for Klobuchar.

“Iowa was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Corby said. “Between following and learning more about campaigns, to being able to sit in the front row for the candidate I want and am voting for, the entire trip was magnificent.”

Andrea Sheetz ’21 volunteered for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) while in Iowa and helped the committee prepare for caucus night. Her responsibilities included reaching out to individuals with disabilities to ensure that accommodations were made for them, filing paperwork and calling Iowa residents to confirm their attendance. In this volunteer position, Sheetz developed a better understanding of what democracy looks like to Iowan voters.

“The sense of community is very prevalent in Iowa,” Sheetz said. “This is evident from town members convening for campaign events and neighbors gathering on caucus night to share their visions for democracy. Iowans who volunteered, canvassed, led caucuses and everything in between reinforced that community is integral to a shared future.”

Sheetz, an Elon Votes! coordinator, reflected on her experiences as they relate to the civic engagement work she does at Elon.

“The Kernodle Center is a place where I feel that same hope and collective vision,” Sheetz said. “The students, staff and community partners are all doing our part to make Alamance County a better place to live. We also keep learning from each other along the way. No one person can solve every problem – here in Iowa or anywhere. But by working together we can all make progress and change.”

Instead of volunteering for a presidential campaign, other students covered the presidential candidates as student media for Elon News Network. Students worked alongside the major news networks reporting on the candidates and their town hall events. The Elon student journalists filed news articles, filmed content for packages, and interviewed Iowan residents, as well as the candidates themselves. On days when there were not many candidate events in the region, students visited Drake University and the Iowa State Capitol building to speak to college students and local politicians about the candidates, the upcoming debate and the caucuses themselves.

“The experience as a whole was absolutely incredible,” Ashlyn Deloughy ’22 said. “Being able to engage with both the presidential candidates and local Iowans directly is not something journalism students across the country are exposed to everyday. We were directly working alongside experienced reporters from the major news outlets that just might employ us someday. I was quickly reminded of how demanding this career is and how it involves various multimedia skills. Beyond that, I was given the opportunity to enhance these key journalism skills in an environment where news coverage is essential for the public. I simultaneously became a more politically engaged student as I developed a better understanding of the culture in Iowa that really only happens every four years.”

The Winter Term class gave Deloughy and her peers opportunities to network with professionals in the journalism field. CNN’s Sam Feist and Wolf Blitzer and NBC’s Morgan Radford are just a few of the notable figures who spoke to Elon students, sometimes right in their hotel lobby. “The fact that figures such as Anderson Cooper, Andrew Yang, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Dana Bash were staying in the same hotel as all of us is still so unreal to me,” Deloughy said.

The CNN Democratic debate took place at Drake University while the students were in Iowa. As a student media member, Deloughy was able to cover the watch party for Warren’s campaign. Two of her classmates were in the “spin room” where all the major news networks reported from that night. Those who were volunteering for a political campaign were also able to get seats to watch the event unfold live.

“While these were just some of the highlights from this Winter Term course, I cannot stress enough how grateful I am for this opportunity. I could talk about this trip for days,” Deloughy said. “As Corby mentioned earlier, this is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will remember forever.”

To read more about the Winter Term course in Iowa, visit this blog site where students on the trip reflected on their experiences. Interested in more content? Visit Elon News Network to read the students’ coverage of all the candidate events.