As Americans waited to learn the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, more than 700 University of Chicago students of all political stripes gathered on Nov. 6 to watch election night results trickle in.
Some were international students observing the American political process with fresh fascination. Others were conservative and liberal students who turned out in large numbers to the main events at the Reynolds Club and the School of Social Service Administration. Both events were designed to welcome a variety of perspectives, which for many students was the whole point of the evening.
“I don’t have a strong political background, so I wanted to get other people’s input,” explained Sonja Khan, AB’12, about why she decided to attend the Reynolds Club event.
College students spread word quickly about the event, sponsored by the University’s non-partisan Institute of Politics, the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities, University Communications, UChicago Dining, and Campus and Student Life. For the Institute of Politics, the night continued a successful season of engaging students in political dialogue, beginning with programming linked to the first and third presidential debates.
"As was the case with the presidential debates, we see political events as prime learning opportunities for UChicago students, especially if the students are able to gather and interact,” said Darren Reisberg, executive director of the Institute of Politics. “We at the Institute of Politics are thrilled to be able to facilitate those types of interactive experiences.”
Students at the Reynolds Club said they came for many reasons — to be part of an energizing event, join friends, have discussions, take a study break and, of course, to eat.
“I’m here for the atmosphere and to celebrate politically,” said Rachel Corrigan, a second-year political science student. “I’m here for the views, free food and the really exciting atmosphere.”
The Reynolds Club event featured three viewing rooms: a large non-partisan viewing area in Hutchinson Commons and additional gathering spaces for viewers supporting specific parties. A TV in the corridor between rooms displayed students’ Twitter posts on the election in real time. Party decorations and streamers filled the rooms, with the right-leaning McCormick Tribune Lounge notably featuring life-sized cutouts of Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Students in Reynolds Club were decked out in candidate T-shirts, pins and stickers, while others opted for more generally patriotic gear.
“Today, of all days, this is where you want to be, even during midterms,” said second-year political science student Tanvi Mango. “I enjoyed the partisan viewing. It was more intense. This is a nice forum for political discussions.”
As the night progressed and more results came flooding in, cheers were heard from the two partisan rooms as states were called for their candidates. But students also came together, visiting partisan rooms for food and conversation.
“This event promoted healthy discourse,” said Adiba Matin, a second-year in the College. “It feels incredible to know that I played a part in it.”
Students praised the Institute of Politics, launched in January 2012, for the numerous events they have held on campus around the election process.
“The campus was somewhat lacking a forum through which students could engage with politics,” said Jen Berger, a fourth-year public policy student in the College. “The Institute of Politics fills that void.”
The inaugural director of the non-partisan Institute will be David Axelrod, AB’76, who was senior strategist for President Obama’s successful re-election campaign. With the election over, Axelrod plans to formally join the Institute in January.
Fanele Chester, a fourth-year from Swaziland who is studying romance languages and literature, said the evening embodied much of what drew her to the United States and the University of Chicago. While she conceded that the American political model is not perfect, she praised the free and open debate evident at events like the election night gathering.
“You say whatever you want here,” Chester said. “There is no mystery around power in the U.S.” Although political debates can be rancorous, she said, that honesty is preferable to the fear that pervades politics in many countries.
“I’m at the University of Chicago, where the president was in his neighborhood tonight,” Chester said. “This is the best place to be at this time in American history as a student.”