When the convention is a classroom

For the moment, Sharlyne Woodbury, who will graduate in the fall, is registered as an Independent. And she is decidedly noncommittal.

"You have to convince me to vote either way," says the political science major. As of earlier this month, she hadn't been persuaded - either by Democrats or Republicans. Yet by summer's end, whether or not Ms. Woodbury has developed a strong party loyalty, she'll certainly have learned enough to be a well-informed voter.

Woodbury is one of 40 students enrolled in "Presidential Campaigns and Conventions," a class at Northeastern University here in Boston. The professor, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, knows a thing or two about campaigns and conventions, having run for president on the Democratic ticket in 1988. In addition to the usual lectures, reading, and papers, his students must devote at least 80 hours to the Democratic National Convention's (DNC) host committee in Boston.

As the DNC unfolds here, in this city synonymous with academe, more than 400 students are volunteering through the convention's host committee as part of formal academic programs. Roughly 44 percent of the nearly 14,000 convention volunteers are between the ages of 18 and 25 - the youngest is 11. And countless more students will filter through the streets this week, sidling as close as they can to the action.

But beyond the Democratic convention, educators have discovered that the entire presidential election cycle - from caucuses to inauguration - offers a unique opportunity for students of all ages and stripes to experience democracy firsthand.

Some students scrutinizing this year's election are budding politicians, activists, and reporters. Others are simply intrigued by politics, and curious about the political process.

In addition to Professor Dukakis's students, and those converging on Boston from more distant colleges and high schools, 20 local students from urban high schools are distributing "The Boston Commoner" to convention delegates, a newspaper they've put together with help from professional journalists. One student wrote a story about the rare Bostonians who are happy to have the convention in town.

Young journalists from Scholastic's Kids Press Corps have been following even the tiniest election tremor sinceSeptember 2003. The University of California, Berkeley, sent seven students to New Hampshire's primary. And 15 College Republicans from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., had planned to cross the Hudson River for next month's Republican convention well before learning they will earn credit for their efforts.

"People talk about how youngsters in the United States are not interested in politics: young people don't go out to vote, they don't care," says Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN journalist, who now teaches political science and journalism at the University of Delaware in Newark.

But Professor Begleiter had to turn students away from "Road to the Presidency - The Political Conventions," a course he and a colleague are teaching around the Democratic convention. They first taught the course for the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. "Seeing 86 students lining up to go to the convention," when there was space for just 24, he says, "that's a little bit of a revelation."

The Washington Center, which offers college students academic internships, has sponsored seminars tailored to both parties' conventions for the past 20 years. In 1984, when the program began, 200 students enrolled. This year, more than 400 will attend the conventions.

Many professors view the opportunity as a chance for students to network.

Eugene Alpert, who started the Washington Center's convention series, tells the story of one student, who, at the 2000 Republican convention, was assigned the none-too-coveted task of securing the presidential nominees' restroom. George W. Bush passed his station daily, and by the end of the convention, the student had been offered a position as part of the president-to-be's advance team.

Boston University (BU) recently gave 67 students from photojournalism, political reporting, design, and multimedia convention courses the chance to participate in a mock press conference.

One of those students, Jessica Silvestro, earned her psychology degree from BU this year. She says she's not considering a career in politics, but photography does interest her, and she hopes the convention will give her "a truer sense of what it's like to be a photojournalist."

Others who take these courses are diehard political junkies.

Some students, according to Gregory Payne, a political communication professor at Emerson College in Boston, "go from one of these practical experiences to the next."

Twelve students are enrolled in the convention course that he and a journalism professor are teaching this summer. Some also participated in a presidential campaign course in the fall. And a few will attend the inauguration come January.

Professor Payne calls it "the perpetual endless campaign." For "people with a passion for politics, life is politics, everything is political," he says. "Aristotle said that."

As a young Republican at the University of Illinois in 1968, a professor told Payne's political science class to attend an event outside the classroom. Payne chose a rally in Indiana for Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy, an experience that he says, "changed my political landscape." He left the speech a Democrat.

"What I want to do in my teaching," he says, "is forge the same hands-on, head-on approach ... that I had in that class."

Professors say it's not uncommon for students to switch sides after closely examining parties and politicians. And "spirited debates" do ensue.

This year, Professor Alpert of the Washington Center says he has students who, in reaction to the 2000 election, "are self-described angry 18-year-olds." For the most part, though, professors say students allied with one party don't seem troubled by attending the other party's convention.

Michael Cappetta, a 14-year-old who's been reporting for Scholastic since October, refuses to reveal what candidate he would vote for - if he were of age.

"I think you know and I know that we're not supposed to share our opinion," he says. Michael, who lives in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, worries that identifying with a party might affect the way his young readers perceive the stories he has written on everything from a Cleveland appearance by Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards to a visit by President Bush.

Lauren Gentile, another Scholastic reporter from Clinton Township, Mich., has produced 20 stories. The night before the 13-year-old's first assignment, a Roseville, Mich., event for former Vermont governor Howard Dean, she didn't sleep at all. In the morning, Lauren said to her brother, "You know, this is going to be one of the best experiences of my life."

Later that day, she was granted an interview with Dean.

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