Harvard Student Moves From Student Gov't To Presidential Campaign

This story was written by Lauren D. Kiel, Harvard Crimson
After the race for Harvard University Undergraduate Council president and vice president in 2006, running mates Edward Y. Lee '08 and Ali A. Zaidi '08-'09 both thought their campaigning days were over.

"After that campaign, we said we're never going to work on a campaign again," Lee says.

But he quickly proved himself wrong.

Following his unsuccessful bid for the UC's second-in-command, Lee assumed a different kind of political role instead: working for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

EMBARKING ON THE TRAIL

A self-proclaimed science-and-math guy, Lee says he wasn't particularly interested in politics before being inspired by Obama.

"As soon as I heard his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I immediately said, 'that's the guy that's going to change this country. If he ever decides to run for President, I'm going to do anything I can to make him the next President,'" Lee says.

True to his word, Lee began interning for the Obama campaign last summer at the Senator's New Hampshire office.

After he arrived in New Hampshire with his video camera, he was asked to join the office's New Media team, taping speeches and making videos for the campaign. As an intern, he says he also spent about five hours a day knocking on the doors of New Hampshire residents.

In August, Lee had packed his things to return to Harvard when his boss on the campaign told him they wanted him to stay on through the semester as a paid campaign staffer.

CAMPAIGN SUPPORTERS

Lee said his immediate instinct was to turn down the job, thinking he needed to go back to school. He e-mailed at least 30 of his mentors and friends, asking for advice on what he should do, and received an overwhelming response in favor of taking the job.

"Their idea was that Harvard will always be there, but Barack will not always be there," says the Overland Park, Kan., native.

One of the people he sought advice from was sociology professor Tamara Kay. Lee had taken two courses taught by Kay that were particularly relevant to his work on the campaign: "Law and Social Movements" and "Visualizing Social Problems in Documentary Film and Photography."

"I think there are very few moments that come in life that you could do something you are that passionate about," Kay says. "I knew he'd get a lot out of it, and the long-term costs to him were minimal, if any."

But some people had hesitations about Lee taking time off from school.

"One of the things that I told him was to really consider the impact it could have on some of the relationships he had developed at Harvard," says Chiduzie C. Madubata '06, who met Lee through the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Lee says that his while his mom was initially very supportive of his taking time off, his dad -- a Clinton supporter -- was a bit more hesitant.

"Now I think he's seen the light and come over to the good side," Lee jokes.

Both his parents are now strong supporters of Obama and consistently follow Obama in the news.

So last fall, as his fellow Kirkland House residents moved back into their dorm rooms, Lee remained in his apartment in New Hampshire, beginning his first job as a full-time staff member of the Obama campaign.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

Many of Lee's days working for Obama were spent in the campaign's New Hampshire headquarters in Manchester.

Days in the office would begin around 9 a.m., when Lee would arrive at work. According to Lee, there were about 50 campaign staff members working in the office, and 30 to 40 volunteers there at any given time.

Lee says he was not able to visit home between August and January, so the other staff members and volunteers ecame like family. He and three other members of the New Hampshire office's New Media staff had their four desks placed together in a square.

Lee says the citizens of New Hampshire also made the staffers feel at home.

"I think one of the most endearing things was that they took care of us," Lee says of the state's residents. "All the time they would call us and say, 'you guys are doing very good work, keep it up.'"

Lee says he would spend the day putting together videos for the website before leaving the office around 11 p.m. During his time with the campaign, he says he made about 50 videos, including three 15-minute documentaries. His only days off last semester, he says, were Thanksgiving and Christmas.

MEET AND GREET

But the long hours he put in were not the only part of his work that made it different from a typical 9-to-5 job: More than half the time, Lee says he traveled around the state with the campaign.

In addition to filming many speeches and events, Lee also attended rallies and house and organizational meetings.

"I think being able to be on the road showed me how much of a movement this whole campaign is," he says.

Lee had the chance to meet a number of people who came to the state to campaign on behalf of Obama. When Sen. Richard J. Durbin was in New Hampshire, Lee and a fellow Obama employee were given the task of driving him around the state.

"Canvassing with Dick Durbin was probably one of the more memorable experiences I've had," Lee says. "He's one of the most prominent senators in the United States, and yet he's knocking on the doors, and you're beside him every step of the way."

Another memorable experience for Lee was meeting Oprah Winfrey. Lee says he shook her hand and gave her a hug after filming her at a rally last December.

But driving Durbin around and hugging Oprah probably weren't as exciting as a certain basketball game he was able to play.

Lee and two other staffers even were able to shoot hoops with Obama before the candidate played basketball with some reporters.

"He was one of the most down to earth people you'll ever meet," says Lee, who was there to film the game. "He is a very funny guy, and he's very genuine. Everything he said you could tell that he actually meant it."

The second time he met Obama also involved sports. At a baseball game, one of Lee's friends was eating French fries. The Senator came over and took some fries from him, promising he would pay the friend back. At the end of the game, Lee says, Obama made good on his promise and bought Lee's friend another batch of fries.

BACK IN THE 'KIDDIE POOL'

Lee compares his transition back to Harvard to being in a kiddie pool after swimming in an ocean.

"It's very hard to be here in a classroom working on a problem set when all my friends and coworkers are working to make him president," Lee said.

But perhaps Harvard and the real world aren't so different after all, at least when it comes to campaigns.

Lee says he has come to see that the Obama campaign was similar in some ways to his campaign for UC vice president: He sees them as sharing messages of idealism and hope.

There was one main difference, though.

"Barack Obama's campaign is a lot more organized," he laughs.
© 2008 Harvard Crimson via U-WIRE
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