American University students find passion and purpose through working on campaigns
Working for candidates while still being a student has been a fulfilling experience
Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's October 2020 virtual print edition.
People familiar with American University know that it’s common to see AU students on Capitol Hill or interning with a political advocacy group or a lobbying firm. But during the election cycle, people can also find them working on campaigns, for local and national races.
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, students continue to knock on doors, call voters and take other actions to campaign virtually for candidates across the country.
Many students said they’ve found campaign work fulfilling and worthwhile during this time. Katia Portela, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, chose to only take two classes from home in New York City this semester, while working on Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign as a field lead organizer for the Corona neighborhood in Queens. Her job includes bringing food and supplies to hard-hit families, among many other responsibilities.
“When the pandemic hit, I wanted to work on a New York City campaign because I’m really passionate about electoral and community organizing, and bringing that together in New York,” Portela said.
Portela, who grew up in a bilingual household in Manhattan, where her father works as an immigration attorney, has a personal connection to her work. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign is heavily involved in communities where English is not the primary language spoken and many people are immigrants. Queens, in particular, is heavily diverse, with a majority of the Corona population being Latinx. It also had some of the highest recorded cases of COVID-19 in NYC.
Thus, the work Portela does goes beyond phone banking, census work and field strategy. Working for Ocasio-Cortez has allowed her to help her city in ways that she otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. This involves COVID-19 relief, checking in on families and feeling like she’s truly making a difference in communities.
“I love the work itself, and the people that I organize with, the community leaders I’ve connected with in Corona, as well as the rest of my team, they’re some of the most inspiring people in the world,” Portela said.
Rolando Cantú, a senior taking a semester off from AU, volunteered for Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. In the fall of 2019, he worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then a presidential candidate, as a communications intern during the New Hampshire primary.
Cantú spoke highly of his experience working for Sanders, during which he got to travel throughout New England.
“It was a really interesting experience … seeing the behind the scenes coordination, seeing how they prep all the rallies and speeches,” Cantú said.
He also mentioned how vulnerable people he met while campaigning were willing to be. Cantú said a man confided in him about his past drug addiction, questioning if, by voting for Sanders, he would be electing someone who would work to end the opioid crisis.
Josh Ludden, a senior in SPA, works as a full-time field organizer for Democrat John Kane of Pennsylvania, who is running for state senate. Only taking one class at AU this semester so he can work, he said he relocated from Syracuse, New York, to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for the campaign and is living in an Airbnb until the end of the campaign.
“The reason I did it this cycle was because I felt like there was too much at stake for me to not get involved,” Ludden said. “There’s too many people who aren’t able to do what I’m able to do. I know that I’m doing everything I can to make sure that our country goes in the direction that I think it needs to.”
Andrew Laureti, who is graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SPA in December, shares a similar sense of urgency when it comes to being politically-active. He works as a digital organizing associate on Joe Biden’s campaign. It’s a job that entails a lot of responsibilities, which Laureti willingly takes on.
“Working for a candidate, naturally you're submitting yourself to, you know, being under pressure a lot of the time,” Laureti said. “There's just so much. There's never enough time. So, it's a little bit stressful, but I love it; it's incredibly rewarding.”
The pandemic challenges campaign workers’ ability to do their jobs as effectively as they could during a normal election cycle. Portela said there is an emotional toll when campaigning during this time.
“When you’re going to a community [to donate supplies] that you have ties to, and you see eight blocks of people not socially distanced waiting in line to get a bag of food, … [it] is really tough,” Portela said.
Ludden said that he sometimes gets frustrated feeling like he’s doing the same thing every day. Similarly, Cantú said that campaigning through social media and digital information, instead of meeting with people face to face, felt far less impactful.
Laureti, however, appreciates being able to do work from different locations.
Despite current circumstances, all four said that campaigning fulfills them, and makes them feel like they’re making a positive difference in politics.
“The things that I’m doing are going to affect the outcome of millions of people,” Cantú said. “It’s a job where you can see your perceived opinion of what ‘good’ is.”