By Emily D. Kimball
In the basement of the Milton A. Barlow Center in Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C., BYU students participating in Washington Seminar, gathered to watch Sen. Barack Obama’s half-hour infomercial Wednesday.
During the segment about seniors facing challenges, Andrew Skabelund, 23, a senior majoring in history, said, “This is depressing, the melodramatic music.”
Students passed around a one-pound block of extra-dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s and discussed party plans for election night.
“What I liked the best was when he focused on personal responsibility,” Skabelund said. “I think that’s key, if he can do something to address that, he could bring about real change.”
A couple of students cheered when Obama vowed to defend the country.
The student gathering was attended almost entirely by Obama supporters, though out of the 40 students participating in Washington Seminar, political support is split evenly between Obama supporters and McCain supporters, with a few students who remain undecided.
After the infomercial, students flipped on the World Series and played pool.
The center, which opened in 2002 and includes church offices and meeting rooms, houses students while they work at area internships. This session, students work for think tanks, embassies, the State Department, congressmen, senators, the Federal Judiciary Center, the March of Dimes, Voice for America and a number of other organizations.
The center’s living areas resemble BYU dorms, with carpet halfway up the walls. Each floor offers a communal kitchen, with abandoned and unclaimed food on the counter and in the fridge, more than a few days old.
Students make nightly trips to the gym or go running together, a tribute to the surrounding neighborhood described on the institute Web site as “very safe.”
As mudslinging and negativity ravish the District, the center offers students a venue for respectful and informed political discussion. “A lot of us have different ideas and it’s more useful to hear the other side than to stay away from it,” said Becky Carlson, 22, a senior majoring in American Studies.
A number of students said they rarely worry about offending others when sharing their political opinions.
“I don’t like confrontation, so when there were a lot of vocal Obama supporters I was hesitant to step forward,” said Megan Baer, 24, a senior majoring in American Studies. “But then I decided who cares? I wear my McCain pin to all of the debates and I cheer really loud. But at the same time, I respect and I think about both of the candidates.”
This session, the financial crisis and the presidential election have dominated political discussion.
“We have pretty open discussions, more about the issues than about candidates,” said Chad Hill, 23, a senior majoring in economics. “It’s a self-selecting group, people are here because they want to better understand the government.”
Tensions mount as Election Day nears. Students at the center speculate over who will win and by what margin.
“I wouldn’t trade the experience,” Carlson said. “I planned to come at this time for this reason.”