While nearly every other EIU student spent the early weeks of the fall semester getting into the swing of another school year, one history major was at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., further broadening the already expansive horizons of her academic interests.
You may wonder how Clare Smith -- a senior honors student with minors in religious studies, psychology and English along with a semester of study abroad under her belt -- could possibly fit any more interests into her four years at Eastern, but politics have always fascinated her.
“I know it might sound weird, but I enjoy watching the news and political programs,” said Smith, who, despite her trio of minors, will graduate in May after four years and begin graduate school. “More specifically, I was interested in the international relations aspect of them.”
And that’s how Smith’s two-week trip to Charlotte came to pass. Through an organization called The Washington Center, she was one of around 110 college students from all over the world to take part in its Campaign 2012 Academic Seminar Series. An organization representative had spoken to one of Smith’s freshman honors classes, leading her to sign up for an email list that brought this particular Aug. 25-Sept. 7 program to her attention.
Even though that program coincided with the second and third weeks of the EIU fall semester and also involved some registration fees, Smith was able to employ the aid of Margaret Messer — then the director of honors student affairs — to make it all work out.
“I went to the Honors College because I was told they’d be able to help me with funding and other things like that. Dr. Messer was really helpful. She emailed all my professors for the next semester and told them what an amazing opportunity this would be for me.
“They were all really supportive. The Honors College wouldn’t have funded me without the approval of all my teachers, and I wouldn’t have gone without their approval anyway. My grades mean too much to me. Dr. Messer was also able to get me a scholarship through The Washington Center, so I don’t think I ended up paying for anything besides my flight and food.”
After a week of classes prior to the Sept. 4-6 convention — during which participants heard lectures from politicians, convention organizers and journalists — Smith took on a fieldwork assignment through the National Democratic Institute.
They were having their International Leaders Forum, so I worked with a bunch of ambassadors and other international leaders,” said Smith. “I’m looking at possibly going into international relations, so that’s one of the organizations I could work for if I go into that field.”
Smith definitely had some concerns going into the trip, since she’s not a political science student like a bulk of the participants and also isn’t what she’d describe as a “hardline Democrat.”
“I didn’t know if I was going to feel out of place, but it was amazing,” said Smith. “Phenomenal. There were so many different opinions and views, but we were all able to talk about them and not be judged. As a history student, it was kind of interesting to look at things through a historical perspective and talk to others about why things happened a certain way and offer that unique view.”
While she was only able to attend the actual convention one night and a last-minute venue change killed her chances of seeing President Barack Obama’s Sept. 6 speech, Smith was able to personally witness a moving address from former President Bill Clinton.
“He was phenomenal,” said Smith with a smile. “The atmosphere of the room when he spoke and how riled up he was able to get everybody — it was just amazing. I’ll never forget that speech.”
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was also in attendance, and a chance meeting ended up being a neat photo-op for Smith.
“I was working at the airport picking up ambassadors,” remembers Smith. “I was standing there with my little sign that said 'National Democratic Institute' and I just happened to be standing next to the governor. I thought, ‘He looks familiar!’ I got to introduce myself to him, and that was really cool.”
All in all, Smith firmly believes her convention experience was very worthwhile and the kind of thing more of her contemporaries should explore.
“I think students need to take more initiative and try to do programs like this,” said Smith. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do something like that, but I was wrong. When you do things like internships and study abroad, I think it makes you so much more desirable to future employers. So many people now are doing things like these that if you want to stand out, you have to do them as well.”