For more than two years, Bowdoin alumna Meredith Segal '08 has worked alongside President-elect Barack Obama to inspire millions of Americans to believe that yes, they can.
Segal has been involved in Obama's campaign from the beginning, serving as one of the youngest national co-chairs of Obama For America and, after starting the Students for Barack Obama Facebook group, directing the largest grassroots movement of the campaign involving college students. After Obama clinched the Democratic party nomination last June, Segal, after graduating from Bowdoin in May, took yet another active position in the campaign: She became the office manager of the Obama campaign in Philadelphia.
"I knew I wanted to be in a battleground state and, growing up in a small town in Maine, I wanted to organize in an urban area, so Philadelphia seemed like a natural choice," Segal said. "It's the only one of the ten major cities in the country that's in a battleground state."
Although Segal is only 22, the Obama campaign was ripe with opportunities for her and other young supporters.
"One of the things that's really fun about campaigns is that even if, as a young person, you may not have a whole lot of experience, if you devote yourself heart and soul to them, there will be opportunities open to you," she said.
Segal said that in some ways, campaigns are especially suited to younger workers.
"You're working at least 100 hours a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 or 2 in the morning. It's not the most practical lifestyle if you have a family," Segal said. "And it's not a job that anyone takes to get rich. I think that most people have the attitude that if you can break even at the end of the campaign it hasn't been too bad financially."
Segal was primarily in charge of organizing the more than 100 volunteers who filtered through the several campaign offices in Philadelphia each day. Segal said organizing volunteers gave her a new outlook.
"Up until that point, I'd worked primarily with students and young people," she said. "It was an incredible change to work with people of all ages and backgrounds."
Segal worked with a variety of Pennsylvanians, ranging from wealthy city attorneys who spent a few hours each week volunteering, to homeless people who volunteered all day several times a week. In addition, she organized Obama supporters from other countries. People came from nations such as England, Australia, Belgium and Denmark, according to Segal.
"It was interesting and exciting to work with such a broad array of people," Segal said. "There are not many efforts in life that bring together such a coalition of people."
During the final days of the campaign, so many people volunteered that the number was "too high for any of us to count," she added.
Holding a position of authority over many older volunteers was "interesting," according to Segal, "but it was a culture of mutual respect. It was really a true team."
In addition to working with volunteers, Segal was responsible for most of the logistics of running a campaign in a major city, which involved paying close attention to details.
For example, the week before the election, Segal spent long nights putting door hangers on hundreds of thousands of doors in Philadelphia telling people in each district where to vote.
"Throughout the past four months we had to determine who was registered to vote and who were supporters of Obama. Every registered voter who we had reason to believe would support Barack Obama got a door hanger," she said. "It involved a lot of math."
At one point during the summer, Segal had the opportunity to honeher crowd control skills at an Obama event in western Philadelphia. Obama had planned to appear at four different events in four different neighborhoods.
"We had prepared all night, and we finished just in time for the event," she said. "I stopped by the west Philly event to drop some things off and what I saw was the most massive sea of incredibly excited, perhaps not the most controlled, group of folks."
Segal spent the next few hours standing on a table with a megaphone directing the "massive seas of people we were not expecting," she said. "I was basically the crowd control."
"There were a lot of fun, challenging moments like that," she added.
Segal's most memorable day of the campaign was the last day of voter registration in Philadelphia, October 4.
"At the very end of the day we were driving down streets at 11:45 p.m. with megaphones telling people that it was their last chance to register to vote," she said.
Segal and her co-workers were able to register voters even in the final 15 minutes of the day, and overall, 10,000 voter registrations came through her office on October 15.
One of the biggest challenges for the Obama team in Philadelphia was working to reach its goals within the political framework of the city.
"One of the things that is always a challenge is coming in as an outsider to the community and making sure that there isn't a feeling that we're trying to tell people what to do," Segal said. "Philadelphia is a very democratic city with a well-established order, and we learned to work within that political establishment."
As election day drew nearer, Bowdoin alumni J. Patrick Brown '08, Anna Karass '08, and Hande Ozergin '08 joined Segal in Philadelphia to volunteer during the final days. In additon, the night before the campaign, 17 college students from Vermont called Segal's office at 4 a.m. looking for volunteer work.
"Five minutes later we had 17 college students come into the office," she said. "They painted signs and were out on the road early that morning letting everyone know it was Election Day."
Segal, founder of Students for Barack Obama, enjoyed ringing in Election Day with college students.
"It was nice because in a lot of ways, my heart in this campaign has always been with the students," she said.
Although the campaign was a flurry of 16 to 20-hour days for Segal, November 4 was comparatively calm.
"One of the things that I loved about this campaign was that it's pretty much been the same plan and the same approach from the beginning. By the time Election Day came, it was a matter of watching the plan that we had been busy enacting," she said.
Invited by a fellow Obama for America co-chair, Segal flew to Chicago and was in the front row at Grant Park on Election Night to hear Obama's acceptance speech.
"I've always been someone who's an organizer and active in making an event happen," she said. "For one time it was nice to be a part of the moment and not worry about anything."
Segal was amazed and inspired by the reaction to Obama's victory in Grant Park. Shortly after she arrived at the park, she heard a "jumbo cheer" as Obama was announced the president-elect.
"I don't think I've seen as many happy people in one place as I did that night. There were random people hugging each other," she said. "Probably one of the coolest moments of the campaign was standing there and hearing them announce the president-elect's family. I smiled and thought that it's all been worth it. This is what it's all about," she said.
"Overall as a nation, I don't think there's been any event, at least in my lifetime, that's made so many people so happy," she aded.
Segal, who has met Obama several times, has no doubts that he will live up to the country's expectations.
"He starts with a deep understanding of the challenges that are confronting Americans, and he has the compassion to care about those challenges. He's deeply committed to making sure that the lives of the people he's serving will improve," she said. "He complements that with the intelligence and the ability to bring people together to make that change happen."