By David Paone
It was huge, indeed.
Hofstra University on Long Island was an epicenter of activity on the last Monday in September when it hosted the first of three presidential debates for 2016. And plenty of students were involved.
For starters, there were 515 lucky students who won a lottery to attend. Out of the roughly 1,000 people who packed the debate hall, about half of them were Hofstra students.
One such student was Manmeet Nijjer, an 18 year-old criminology freshman from Lawrence, Long Island.
“I’m actually undecided; I don’t know who I’m voting for yet,” she said. She added immigration is “a really big issue” for her. Her parents immigrated to the US from India but her uncle has been waiting for his visa to come through for 12 years.
In addition to immigration, the other issues she wants to hear the candidates debate are international affairs and ISIS.
Another such student was Ariana Farajollah, an 18 year-old freshman in the physician’s assistant program from Great Neck, Long Island. She entered the lottery because, she said, “This [is] an historical moment and it’s happening at our school, so how could I pass up the opportunity to send in my name?”
Ariana anticipated a lively debate. “Tonight is definitely going to be a show… because of its crazy candidates.” She said she’s “not in love with either candidate,” but added, the debate “will sway my decision.”
Seven thousand, four hundred, eighty-one students entered the drawing. The requirements were students had to be registered at Hofstra for at least six credits as well as registered to vote.
There was no preference given to anyone, and the winners were picked using a computer. It was “fully randomized,” said Gary Miller, executive director of the Career Center.
The exception to the voter registration requirement was international students. Mateusz Lakomski (whose American friends call him Matthew) is a 19 year-old freshman and finance major from Poland.
“When I was in Poland, I always dreamt about the United States,” he said. He feels “it’s my privilege” to attend Hofstra and to witness the debate.
He anticipated “a really interesting battle” because “we have two candidates who are so different from one another.”
Then there were the volunteers, who had various duties throughout the campus, some of which were on the days leading up to debate day.
Maria Galletta, a freshman and marketing major from New Milford, Connecticut, worked the days prior to and including the debate. One of her duties was to help with issuing credentials to the media.
Out of the roughly 300 student volunteers, 20 of them hit the jackpot with an assignment inside the debate hall. Isabella Falkovitch, a sophomore and public relations major from West Hartford, Connecticut, landed a job as an usher, who showed attendees to their assigned seats.
During the debate she was stationed in the front of the balcony with a clear view of the action. To make this even more special, this is Isabella’s first election in which she’s old enough to vote.
In addition to the lottery winners and the volunteers, students could get into the act through their extracurricular activities, such as the cheerleading team, the dance team and the pep band. All three groups performed throughout the day at various locations on campus.
The dance team has 16 members, but for debate day, they worked in four shifts of four girls each, so they’d have a constant presence without anyone getting too tired to perform. “We’ve been up since three a.m.,” said Marissa Speciale, a senior from Smithtown, Long Island, with a major in education and a minor in speech pathology.
Also on the dance team is Danielle Bradle, a graduate student and marketing major from Commack, Long Island. She was a student at Hofstra when it hosted a debate in 2012. (Hofstra hosted a presidential debate in 2008 and then again in 2012, making it the only university to host three consecutive presidential debates.)
“The 2012 one was a great experience, but it doesn’t compare to the 2016 debate. There’s just so much more going on; so much more enthusiasm among the students,” she said.
Some people view Millennials as pie-in-the-sky Pollyannas who want Bernie Sanders to give them everything for free, or, on the other hand, are completely apathetic.
Sophomore Joanna Rosen, who’s an English literature major from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and plays trumpet for the pep band, said, “I think in a lot of ways for some people that’s true. I’ve noticed that with kids who are a little bit younger than us. But I think for us, we’re fairly involved. I’m registered to vote. I know a couple of people who aren’t, but most of my friends are.”
She has a friend at another school who volunteered at one of the Republican debates this year and has friends at Hofstra who won the lottery.
She added, “Honestly, I think I had a couple of friends who were very, very Bernie and then a lot of them went for Hillary.”
Not everyone on campus was so excited and proud to be part of the election process. Hempstead Turnpike is a major thoroughfare that runs through the Hofstra campus. The debate and its peripheral events took place north of the turnpike, while south of it there was a “free speech zone” set up for protesters, who took advantage of the offer.
Additionally, a group of students marched through the north campus with signs and chanted, “No justice, no peace!”
Then there were a handful of individual protesters with handmade signs bashing one candidate or the other.
If a student didn’t win the lottery, volunteer or perform, he could still partake in the event by attending a “student viewing party.”
There were four of them at various locations on campus and the only requirement to attend was to be a current Hofstra University student. Each location could hold up to 350 people and each had a live feed on a large screen for easy viewing.
After the debate, Manmeet was pleased that both candidates were “very specific” in their responses and spoke about immigration and ISIS.
Before the debate, she wasn’t leaning towards either candidate, but afterward she said, “I’m kind of leaning!”
However, she would not say to which side of the aisle because there are still two more debates to follow, which will help her make her final decision.
Immediately following the debate several people on campus concluded that there was no clear victor; it was a 50-50 split.
Lottery winner Abby Normandin, a sophomore and psychology and global studies major from Massachusetts, had different numbers.
“I would say more like 70-30 [in favor of Hillary]. I think she did a great job. I was very impressed,” she said.
However, she went into the debate already leaning towards the Democrat and admitted, “There could be a little bias as well but I think she did a better job than I expected her to do. I’m mostly pro-Hillary because I’m against Trump.”
The consensus among the students was that they were all very fortunate to be attending the university where national history was being made.
Ariana said, “This is an amazing piece of history, and I’m so happy and proud to be a part of it.”
Isabella said she and her friends spoke about how they will tell their future children about their day at the debate.
Without being “braggadocios” (to borrow a word used that night by The Donald), Isabella said, “I guess I got really lucky.”
They all got really lucky, indeed.