NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Normal West Students Get Facetime With Presidential Candidates During Iowa Trip

Normal West students say their trip to Iowa has changed their views on the leading Democratic presidential candidates—and possibly the course of their own political life too.

Fourteen Normal West students spent a weekend in Iowa in mid-January, meeting with the presidential candidates, attending town hall meetings, and phone banking. They also participated in a mock caucus, to learn how Iowa’s signature voting style really works.

posing with Warren
Credit Courtesy / Tracy Freeman
Tracy Freeman
The Normal West students and teachers pose for a photo in Iowa with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Junior Hailey McGuire returned from the trip convinced she wants to major in political science in college.

“Seeing these people so passionate about things, and having people support them and making people hopeful, I realize that’s something I really want to do in my life,” McGuire said.

McGuire’s view on the candidates also shifted. She was all in on South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg before the trip. She likes his military experience. She got to shake his hand in Iowa.

But after seeing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, McGuire said she has a new favorite candidate. She liked that Warren was also knowledgeable about military affairs, but also talked about women’s health, climate change, and education policy.

The students traveled to Iowa with support from Mikva Challenge, a group based in Chicago that promotes civic knowledge and political participation among young people. Normal West also sent students to Iowa before the 2016 election. During that trip, students followed both Republican and Democratic candidates. This time around, only Democrats are on the trail.

Posed with Mivka Challenge
Credit Courtesy / Normal West
Normal West
Normal West students also participated in a mock caucus experience in which they caucused for issues (instead of candidates), such as climate change, foreign policy, infrastructure, and veterans. About 200 students participated in the event.

Senior Charlie Wetzel’s brother was on that 2016 trip. Before heading to Iowa himself, Charlie wasn’t very political. The trip changed that.

“Seeing them up close, and realizing they’re more human—I always hear about them on the news, but you never see them in person,” Wetzel said. “I actually started to realize, I care more about politics than I thought, and I should actually follow politics and vote in the election.”

Wetzel’s highlight: Seeing one of his teachers (and trip chaperone) Jason Klokkenga ask Warren a question about foreign policy during a town hall. For Klokkenga, the bigger deal was that his mother-in-law (a Warren superfan) got to speak with Warren via FaceTime during the event.

“They’re TV superstars. But they also took the time to take a picture or joke around with our students. Things like that that I know they’ll never forget,” said Klokkenga, a social studies teacher at Normal West. “They got to see and realize, these people work for us as voters, and that’s part of their job to be accessible to us.” 

Junior Jennie Mullholland attended an event with Vice President Joe Biden during the Iowa trip. When he opened it up for questions, everyone’s hands shot up.

“In the back of my head, I had (my teacher Tracy) Freeman saying, ‘Somebody from West needs to ask a question.’ Because she always tries to get us to ask questions whenever we do different experiences like this,” Mullholland said.

So she did. Mullholland—a soon-to-be college student herself, planning to major in political science—asked Biden what he planned to do to lower the cost of college. He responded that he planned to reform and improve student loan forgiveness options for those going into public service.

The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3. Many of the students on the trip will be able to vote in the March primary election in Illinois, even if some of them are 17 years old. They can vote in the primary as long as they turn 18 before the general election in November.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
Related Content