Journalism Student Volunteers for Board of Journalists at the Televised 17th District Democratic Congressional Debate

March 20, 2012

Heather Swick '12
The Scout, Bradley University

By the time Spring Break rolls around, most people have long forgotten their New Year's resolutions. I know I have; I don't eat five servings of vegetables each day, and I haven't yet published a novel. But the one that keeps haunting me is my pledge to be a more informed, more politically active citizen. That's what prompted me to volunteer to be on a board of journalists at the 17th District Democratic Congressional Debate.

I got involved because Brad Macmillan, Executive Director for the Institute of Leadership, came to speak at a student leader meeting in February, and he mentioned that they needed a student to be part of the debate. I wasn't sure exactly what it was, but I heard him mention that the event would be over Spring Break, and because I knew I'd be in the area, I volunteered. That was before I realized this would be televised on WTVP. Which, by the way, would air throughout the entire district, reaching to Rockford, the Quad Cities and Peoria.

I decided that it would be a bit daunting to be on live television, but after the meeting, I requested to be a part of it anyway. Even if I stumbled over my questions and thousands of people witnessed it, it would be a worthwhile experience.

My biggest fear was that I would get on the board and have worthless questions. I'm not from Peoria, so I don't have a true depth of information on the issues that matter most in the area. I got some help from professors and the other journalists on the board, and put together a list of questions that seemed challenging and relevant. It was both intimidating and exciting to be one of three journalists where the other two, Alex Rusciano of WCBU and Roger Ruthhart of The Dispatch/ The Rock Island Argus, were professional members of the media.

The day of the event, I drove to the riverfront and parked in the first available spot I found. A few blocks later, my feet already aching in my heels, I realized I could have parked much closer. I also realized that one of the candidates, Cheri Bustos, was standing outside the studio. That's when I started to get nervous. But I forced myself to walk through the doors. It was an hour before we were live, and I occupied my time by greeting the candidates and other members of the media and reviewing my questions. Ten minutes before airing, we entered the studio and sat down to prepare. The final minute or two before we were live was intense; someone in the studio counted down seconds to airing, and no one moved. The audience and candidates were completely silent as they anticipated the event. Intro music cued, lights dimmed, and the candidates visibly prepared themselves, smiles at the ready. 

The hour-and-a-half debate went by quicker than I thought it would. I was able to ask five questions, ranging in topic from education to transportation to Asian Carp, and before I knew it, the moderator was closing out the program. 

We were able to meet with the candidates for awhile after the program, and it was a sort of thrill to talk to people in person who many others would only see on TV or in the news. I packed up my things and began the long trek back to my car, happy that I hadn't stumbled over my questions. It was a surreal experience to later see the recording of myself on TV, to remember how nervous I was, how much I had prepared for it. 

But in the end, it was a fantastic experience, one I am so grateful that Brad Macmillan and the Institute of Leadership allowed me to be a part of, and one that hopefully showed the candidates and viewers at home that students can, and do, care about who leads their communities.