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MIT students debate national issues in swing state

Six MIT students who participated in a student debate at Case Western Reserve. From left: Gillian Harding, Lakshmi Nambiar, Rebecca Lessem, Chris Suarez, Ken Nesmith and John Velasco
Six MIT students who participated in a student debate at Case Western Reserve. From left: Gillian Harding, Lakshmi Nambiar, Rebecca Lessem, Chris Suarez, Ken Nesmith and John Velasco
Photo courtesy / Lakshmi Nambiar

While many in the U.S. were focused for a few hours on the John Edwards/Dick Cheney debate about our nation's future in Cleveland, Ohio, six MIT students spent their entire weekend in the same place sparring on the same issues.

The students--three Republicans and three Democrats--traveled to Ohio to participate in a mock political convention and debate held on Oct. 4 at Case Western Reserve University--the same campus at which Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) exchanged verbal blows on Oct. 5.

The bipartisan MIT group was part of a group of more than 60 students from 15 colleges and universities across the country who volunteered to participate in the national student conference called "The Race at Case."

The 30 student convention "delegates" in each party elected student debaters to serve as their representatives in the final one-on-one debates on the U.S. economy, national security, social issues and domestic policy

Kenneth Nesmith, an MIT senior majoring in political science, was elected by the Republican Party to represent its stance on national security. Nesmith said he spent a lot of time preparing for the debate, mostly by anticipating the questions and practicing his responses.

"We were well informed," said Nesmith, who said he gained a new appreciation for the art of political debate and what the candidates go through. "I realized how hard it was to remember all the points I wanted to get across."

The student debates had no winners, as stated in the rules of engagement. "Overall, both sides represented their positions well," said Nesmith, a native of St. Louis, Mo., and a member of the MIT College Republicans, who went to "The Race at Case" to meet "other politically motivated college students," he said. "There were a lot of budding politicians there." Nesmith plans to join the Peace Corps after graduation.

For John Velasco, another senior majoring in political science and member of the MIT College Republicans, being at Case was one of the best experiences of his college career.

"It was remarkable to be in that environment," said Velasco of San Diego, Calif. "I have never seen anything like it."

Chris Suarez, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, is a member of the MIT Democrats; he went to Cleveland for many of the same reasons as his colleagues. "I thought it would be cool to experience another kind of debate and hear what other people's opinions are," he said. "I have seen a lot of inequality that exists in this country," said Suarez, who grew up in Chicago.

Nesmith attended the Oct. 5 vice-presidential debate along with the other seven student debaters. (The remaining 53 students watched it on TV.) Nesmith said the debate looked different in person than it did on television.

"They were trading some harsh blows," he said. "In person it almost seemed out of place." Still, he was impressed by the skill each candidate displayed. "I am sure I could learn a lot from watching them," he said.

The Case Western administrators who organized the event hope it will show that students really do care about politics. "Young people are often characterized as apathetic," said Mark Carlson, Case Western associate vice president of government relations. "Our student conventions and debate will help to dismiss that stereotype."

According to a New York Times editorial dated Sept. 28, the national average voter turnout for voters aged 18-24 was about 37 percent in the 2000 presidential election. The way to get students involved is to remind them how much it means, Velasco said.

"You have to give them a reason to care," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 2004 (download PDF).

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