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Penn class requirement: Go to political convention

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PHILADELPHIA — A communications class at the University of Pennsylvania has an unusual requirement: Students must attend the Republican or Democratic national conventions.

The course called "Campaigns, Debates and Conventions" is taught only once every four years by David Eisenhower, the grandson of former President Dwight Eisenhower. It's co-taught by Marjorie Margolies, an ex-congresswoman who happens to be Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law.

Eight students traveled last week to Tampa, Fla., where GOP delegates nominated Mitt Romney for president. Another 12 are attending the Democratic gathering in Charlotte, N.C., where President Barack Obama is slated to accept his re-nomination on Thursday.

The Penn instructors offer an intense, behind-the-scenes tour of each convention, arranging meetings with delegates and discussions with policymakers.

Students hear speeches by rising stars, interact with national leaders and immerse themselves in American political pageantry, Eisenhower said. He called it an unforgettable experience.

"It will change career decisions; it will provide an image that will stay with them as citizens forever," said Eisenhower.

After students return to the Ivy League university in Philadelphia, they'll settle in for a semester of lectures, readings and research papers, in addition to studying the presidential debates. The course, which includes undergraduate and grad students, ends just after Election Day on Nov. 6.

Afreina Noor, who is working toward a master's degree in public administration from Penn, described a whirlwind of activity in Tampa: a seminar on U.S-Mexico relations, a chance encounter with Rep. Michele Bachmann, a meeting with former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, and a glimpse of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee broadcasting his radio show.

Originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, Noor noted she has five years of experience observing elections in countries including her homeland and Nepal. But the GOP gathering exposed her to a different side of democracy, she said.

"For me, politics are very close to my heart," said Noor. "Seeing this part of elections is very new to me."

Fellow master's student Casandra Dominguez, from Madrid, Spain, said attending the convention allowed her to see the political system "unfiltered — not through the media, but through yourself, through your own eyes."

Eisenhower and Margolies have been teaching the class since 2000, with help from other faculty members.

Eisenhower, a historian and research fellow, is director of the Institute for Public Service at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication. He's a lifelong Republican and source of the name Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

Margolies, a Democratic delegate, represented the Philadelphia suburbs in Congress from 1993 to 1995. She later founded the advocacy group Women's Campaign International; her son, Marc Mezvinsky, married former President Bill Clinton's daughter in 2010.

Margolies said the quadrennial class is designed "to give the students an experience like they've never had."

The course material does require revisions. This year's syllabus notes the rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which make the once-innovative political strategies of 2008 "look like a rotary phone." It also addresses new campaign finance laws.

But classes also focus on how candidates' campaign themes have remained fundamentally the same: continuity or change?

That's what intrigues Krystal Bonner, a 21-year-old senior who will be in Charlotte. She said she was drawn to political communication after watching the viral effect of the Obama "Hope" poster that emerged in the 2008 election.

"I like thinking and talking about the message and the imagery and the rhetoric that candidates and campaigns try to put out there," said Bonner, of Thornbury Township, Pa. "I find that just very fascinating."

Follow Kathy Matheson at http://www.twitter.com/kmatheson