Campus & Community / DU History

University steps into spotlight at first presidential debate

Reporters interview political consultant David Axelrod in Hamilton Gymnasium after the Oct. 3 presidential debate at the University of Denver. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

After months of planning, the University of Denver finally took the spotlight Oct. 3 as it hosted the first presidential debate of the 2012 election.

Thousands of DU students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members, plus hundreds of media outlets, were on campus. MSNBC broadcast from a temporary stage just east of the Mary Reed Building throughout the day, while representatives from media outlets from around the world roamed around campus, interviewing students and others, prior to the big event.

Enthusiasm was palpable. Students were decked out in red, white and blue; voters showed their support with banners and signs; and others cheered as television cameras scanned campus.

“This excitement is shared by every member of the DU community,” said Parker Calbert, a senior and student body vice president.

Calbert and student body president Sam Estenson oversaw the student end of things in regard to the debate for the past nine months, getting the word out to fellow students and helping to plan DebateFest — an outdoor festival held on campus that celebrated the University’s big day with live music, family activities, food vendors and more. More than 5,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff and neighbors attended the free event.

DebateFest brought more than 5,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff and neighbors to campus on Oct. 3. Photo: Neal Lauron

Besides being happy to showcase their school, University of Denver students want the world to know: They know how much the debate means. Estenson said instead of seeing political apathy on campus — often a common complaint against young Americans — he witnessed the opposite.

“It’s become so personal,” he said. “There’s such an interest for students.”

Danny Zimney-Schmitt, a first-year environmental science student, went to a rally held for President Obama at DeBoer Park, just a couple of blocks south of campus. “I think [Obama is] the better choice for college students because he’ll help with student loans rather than give us higher interest rates,” Zimney-Schmitt said, adding that the debate was one reason he decided to attend the University.

A number of students were involved in the debate processs — whether volunteering, attending debate-related events in order to increase their chances of getting seats at the debate, or rallying for their pick for president — but perhaps nothing could surpass the experience shared by Zach Gonzales, Samuel Gerry and Dia Mohamed. On Oct. 2 and 3, the three students were stand-ins on the debate stage for Republican nominee Mitt Romney, debate moderator Jim Lehrer and President Barack Obama, respectively, while technicians perfected lights and sound.

They had a pseudo-debate in which Gonzales and Mohamed tried to impersonate the candidates in their answers. They admitted they did their homework to find out what the candidates’ platforms entailed.

“I did more research [on politics] in one night than I have in my whole life,” Mohamed said. “It’s a one-in-a-million opportunity.”

Gerry, a second-year finance student from Fort Collins, Colo., said he was proud of the University and its community.

“While [Colorado State University] is debating whether to build a new football stadium, we are hosting the presidential debate and talking about building a new medical school,” he said. “This makes me so proud to be a student here.”


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