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During a summer road trip from Killeen to Amarillo, Texas, Noah D. Zunker ’21 decided he wanted to take a semester off from Harvard in the fall of 2018 to work for Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign.
“It was my first campaign trip and we were in a small town called Paducah, Texas. It was our second day on the road. It was a super early morning — a Sunday morning — and 25 people showed up to Beto’s event, five of whom were Trump supporters and actually protested the event,” Zunker said. “For Paducah, that was a really good turnout.”
A Round Rock, Texas native and prospective Government concentrator, Zunker said he has always been passionate about politics. He had originally planned to work on O’Rourke’s campaign for the summer and return to Harvard this fall, but his trip to Paducah convinced him to stay on the campaign until Election Day.
“I fell in love with the campaign and what it stood for that day,” Zunker said, adding he felt he had to be “really convinced” to take time off from school to work on a Democratic campaign in his traditionally Republican home state.
Since May, he has been working on O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. While his job primarily consists of working in the Austin campaign office, Zunker said he regularly accompanies O’Rourke on road trips across the Lone Star State.
“On some of the more intense days you wake up at 5:30 in the morning and travel two hours to a middle-of-nowhere town and by the time you’re in bed it’s 2 a.m. because you just finished up,” he said.
Zunker is not the only Harvard undergraduate taking time off to pursue political activism. Caroline M. Cohen ’19 is working on a Kentucky congressional campaign, and Sarah S. Fellman ’18-19 is working in Pennsylvania state politics. Cohen declined to comment, while Fellman did not respond to a request for comment.
Anna L. Duffy ’19, chair of the Campaigns and Advocacy Program at the Institute of Politics, said she applauds “classmates who are willing to step away from Harvard to help make a difference in the world.”
But Ryan D. Enos, a Harvard government professor who has written on the topic, offered a different perspective on students taking time off for politics. He said such leaves of absence are sometimes driven by “opportunistic” motives, especially for those who work on campaigns outside of their home states.
“There’s something a little weird — for lack of a better term — when you think about students from a place like Harvard parachuting into different places in the world and going and representing campaigns,” Enos said.
“Every four years, all of a sudden Ohio is a really important place in the country. Well, you have all of these students who spend their time in Cambridge showing up in Ohio and trying to be part of a campaign,” he added.
Zachary D. Steigerwald Schnall ’21, who plans to take time off for the 2020 presidential race, has a more charitable take on out-of-state student campaigners.
“I want to be wherever I can make the biggest impact in 2020,” he said. “I think that anyone’s voice is as valuable as another on a campaign, particularly when a lot of the work that you do is making phone calls, knocking on doors.”
Prior to coming to Harvard, Steigerwald Schnall took a gap year in 2016 to work on the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s statewide coordinated campaign, which included Hillary Clinton’s presidential race and various statewide and congressional races.
“Though we were happy with the results in our state, we were of course unhappy with the results across the country,” he said. “So I decided on November 9, 2016 that I was going to take time off in 2020 — as much time off as I needed — to make sure that we had different outcomes nationally.”
Steigerwald Schnall, who also worked for the Ohio Democratic Party this summer, said he feels confident about his decision to take time off for the 2020 presidential campaign. He added that he is taking five courses per semester to graduate on time with the class of 2021, and that his academic advisers are helping him through the leave of absence process.
“It’s always a difficult decision to take time off, whether for political reasons or other experiences like starring in a play,” Steigerwald Schnall said. “There are always so many factors, like friendships, graduating with your incoming class, etc.”
Duffy said she supports students such as Steigerwald Schnall who decide to dedicate their full energies to campaigning.
“I encourage students who see the potential to play a part in history to explore the possibility of taking time off for the 2020 elections,” she said.
For Zunker, despite his demanding schedule, he believes his decision to take time off was the right one.
“This has literally been the experience of a lifetime,” he said of working on O’Rourke’s campaign this fall. “I’ve been on the road, and I’ve been able to meet a lot of really cool people and see a lot of Texas.’”
Zunker said his time off this fall has inspired him to run for office one day so that he can engage with other Texans on a deeper level.
“I love interacting with people and learning about people’s lives,” he said.
After Nov. 6, Zunker plans to catch up on sleep this winter and return to Harvard in the spring. Regardless of the outcome of O’Rourke’s campaign, Zunker said he hopes Texas residents will turn out to vote in future elections.
“If you show up and register to vote and you call your friends and tell them to vote, you can really multiply that effect out and become a lot bigger than you think you are,” he said.
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