Thursday, September 18, 2008

Belmont, Hofstra students similarly detached from debate plans

My travels last week took me to Hofstra University, which will hold its presidential debate eight days after Belmont’s on Oct. 15. The 13,000-student university is located in the city of Hempstead on Long Island, N.Y., and, like Belmont, will host its first presidential debate this year.

That’s one of the few similarities between Belmont and Hofstra. Hofstra’s campus is three times the size of Belmont, and its student body is more than twice as large. Hofstra will host the only debate site more than 325 miles from Belmont.

Hofstra’s location, however, is something of a detriment to its publicity of the debate: while Belmont has the advantage of being located practically in the heart of Nashville, Hofstra is a good 45-minute drive (or two-hour train/subway ride) from the middle of Manhattan, where most people don’t seem to know about the event.

“It’s an opportunity to raise the school’s profile, naturally,” said Hofstra spokeswoman Melissa Connolly, who said the school’s out-of-state population has risen to 50 percent of the student body. “There’s a sense that this is a place that is changing.”

During my visit Tuesday afternoon, the only signs of debate planning I saw were the banners hung on light poles surrounding the campus. Unlike Belmont, Hofstra’s media center will be located in a nearby athletic facility, meaning the school won’t have a massive tent like other campuses.

The debate itself will be held in the arena in the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex. Classes will be canceled that day.

In my conversations with students, most knew about the debate but had not been involved in any debate-related events at the school. Former Clinton adviser and This Week host George Stephanopoulos had just visited the campus the previous day.

“There are a lot of opportunities I haven’t taken advantage of yet,” said freshman Jordyn Wilson, of Petoskey, Mich.

Junior Isabelle Goodman, the president of the school’s Progressive Student Union, was in the campus student center lobby handing out materials and talking about the election. Her group, which numbers around 40 students, is planning demonstrations ranging from a “Polar Bears for Palin” rally to placing 30, 10-foot-tall, paper-mache wind turbines on campus.

“We have a good relationship with the university … but we want to push the envelope a little bit,” Goodman said.

Goodman said students she spoke with seemed interested in the debate, but added she thought “people are still in the dark a little bit on who gets to go to the debate.”

Like the other host sites, the school is holding a ticket lottery for current students.

“We talk about it a lot because it’s hard to get into,” said sophomore Andreina Nunez of nearby Queens. She had not signed up for the lottery because she didn’t know how, she said.

In comparing the schools, Hofstra students appeared to show the same amount of interest and enthusiasm about the debates — that is to say, moderate to low levels of each — as Belmont students. It’s a similarity that both schools likely hope will change as their respective debates near.

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