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USF students take on the South Carolina presidential primary with Road to the White House course

Twenty-four USF students are on the ground in South Carolina, working on presidential campaigns for the internship/course, "Road to the White House."

Two dozen University of South Florida students packed their bags and stacked into vans to travel 500 miles away for the South Carolina presidential campaigns.

The program, Road to the White House, is an internship weaved into a course. Every four years, USF students of any major read scholarly literature about presidential campaigns and travel to an early primary state to get hands-on experience.

Judithanne McLauchlan is an associate professor of political science. She started the 6-credit course in 2004 when she brought students to New Hampshire for the first of the nation primary.

A woman in red is kneeling to embrace a small white dog.
Judithanne McLauchlan
Judithanne McLauchlan embraced Mac, the first dog of South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, at the Governor's mansion.

This year, they embarked on Feb. 16 to campaign for South Carolina’s Republican primary election that takes place Saturday. President Joe Biden won the Democratic primary on Feb. 3.

“These students are going to have a new perspective, because they're going to have been on the ground in South Carolina,” McLauchlan said. “They're going to see the candidates, they're going to hear from the candidates and take away experiences and knowledge that they could never have learned just inside the four walls of our classroom.”

Traveling alongside her are students that she said were competitively selected and represent USF at the “highest level.”

Every morning, the students assemble for a seminar over breakfast before going into the field for the day.

Seventeen students are working with the South Carolina Democratic Party, five with Donald Trump’s campaign, and two with Nikki Hailey.

“I'm 100% committed to making sure every student, regardless of political views, has a great learning opportunity,” McLauchlan said. “I always allow the students to select where they work, I will never tell a student that they have to work for one candidate or another candidate. It's always the students' choice.”

Click here to read the USFSP Road to the White House class and student blogs

A man stands behind a podium that has a sign with words that say "first in the nation."
Richie Marini Jr.
South Carolina U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn spoke to the "Road to the White House" class during their visit.

Lana Sleiman is a senior political science major. Even though the Democrats have already held their primary, the students are working with the SCDP on the "retail politics" that states like New Hampshire and South Carolina are known for.

“We're still phone banking, because they do have a state convention coming up,” Sleiman said. “We're trying to recruit people to go to the state convention and run for the open chair position that's there."

"We'll do some data analysis work to follow up with those people who said yes, or with those people who were hesitant and see what we can do to get them to go.”

Sleiman said that on the trip she has been able to meet political figures in person, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

“It's been a humbling experience, because sometimes the person you see on the screen isn't the same person you meet," Sleiman said. "Sometimes they are a lot nicer of a person than you realize."

Steven Brown is a political science student. He’s also a veteran and is using his time in South Carolina to work on vet outreach for the Trump campaign.

“I saw the need for reform in the VA (Veterans Affairs), it's a problem and people are struggling and killing themselves,” Brown said. “I thought that the best way for me to serve my country again and serve my community was to work in policy. One of the best ways to get these things done is to work with legislators and to work with officials.”

A group of people stand in front of signs that say "Trump" and form an American flag.
USF Road to the White House
Student blog
Steven Brown, left, stands with other USF students volunteering on the Trump campaign. Former Trump administration deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, stands third from the right.

Brown added that while working on the Trump campaign, he canvassed 93 houses in one day and that his classmates have been climbing the leadership board for phone banking.

Both Sleiman and Brown said they are planning to continue with campaigns through the November general election, adding that they have gained invaluable networking opportunities through Road to the White House.

“It's going to be incredibly beneficial, the connections I've already made in the days we've been here,” Brown said. “It’s one thing to be a volunteer, but it's another thing to come from an educational angle."

"Having productive conversations across the aisle and explaining why we believe the way that we believe rather than just yelling at each other on social media in all caps, has been a way to kind of bridge the gaps between the two ideologies," he added.

Sleiman even said that finding out about this internship was meant to happen.

“It felt like everything had lined up. It was honestly a dream come true,” Sleiman said. “I had wanted this for so long. I knew it may have been one of the only opportunities to be so immersed into the political field and to learn so much about the primary process.”

McLauchlan said she’s proud of her students for their stamina and hard work as they work long hours ahead of the primary.

“They're 24 different individuals, 24 personalities, but it's really a beautiful cohort of strong and interesting, smart students who have diverse views,” McLauchlan said. “It’s just been a wonderful thing to watch the students get to know each other. They are from different majors, different campuses, different backgrounds, and we are all the Road to the White House.”

The students will hold a public roundtable discussion about the primary and their trip on Feb. 29 from 11 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. at the Poynter Library on the USF St. Petersburg campus.

Kayla Kissel is a WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for spring of 2024.
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