Interviewed by Stephanie South, Program Associate, AASCU
As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are conducting a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we interview intriguing people with different perspectives on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP.
Michelle Corkins was born and raised on a farm in central Kansas; she was very active in her church, a member of the local 4-H club, and a record-holding athlete at the high school. After high school she attended college at Emporia State University (ESU), in Emporia, Kansas. Her college experience was “pretty vanilla” as she describes it—
I changed my major a few times and finally graduated in 2011 with a BS in Business Marketing. Throughout college I worked part-time at a retail store and volunteered in my spare time with various non-profit organizations. Knowing I wanted to start my career in a bigger city, I packed up all my belongings and moved to Denver, Colorado, just two weeks after graduation.
Corkins first became involved with the American Democracy Project through Dr. Rob Catlett’s macroeconomics class. Dr. Catlett – ESU’s ADP Campus Coordinator – encouraged his students to take part in an online Twitter debate during President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2010. This was Corkins’ first experience with Twitter and her first time watching the State of the Union. She thought Twitter was the perfect format for students to debate because of the limited characters allowed in a tweet—it forced them to carefully craft their responses. Corkins has continued to join ESU students in Twitter debates during SOTU addresses and the 2012 Presidential debates because she believes these Twitter debates are a great way to get young people involved and aware of what’s going on in politics.
SS: Michelle, I understand you just finished working for President Obama’s re-election campaign. What lead you there, and what did you do for the campaign?
MC: Oddly enough, a bad day at work! Having moved to Denver a year prior, I was still establishing a friend base—read as: I didn’t have many friends to call on after a bad day at the office. I was following the campaign on Facebook and saw a post about canvassing in your neighborhood. I have always found joy in volunteer work and saw this as a great opportunity to get involved in my community and meet people with likeminded values. The next morning, I attended my first campaign event, and within the month, I had taken on a leadership role as the Neighborhood Team Leader (NTL). As an NTL I was responsible for recruiting volunteers for my neighborhood; planning and producing events; and training and managing volunteers, phone banks, and neighborhood canvassing. I spent my weekends from May-November canvassing (going door-to-door) in my neighborhood to update voter registers, talk to undecided voters, and remind voters who received mail-in ballots to send them in. Week nights were spent in the field office running phone banks and helping out the field organizers in whatever ways needed. Little did I know when I signed up for that first Saturday canvass that volunteering on the campaign would become almost like a second job!
SS: As an undergraduate, what were you involved with on campus? How did those things influence the path you took after graduation?
MC: I wish I could say I was more involved on campus during college. I would attend campus events but was not active with any campus organizations outside of class. I did, however, volunteer my time off campus. Primarily I volunteered with a nonprofit organization (NPO) that lead violence prevention education in local schools. Seeing the difference this program was making in the lives of young people sparked a passion within me for NPO work. My career goal became to work for a NPO and make a difference in my community. Since graduation I have been working to pursue that goal!
SS: Coolest memory from the campaign trail?
MC: Well, I did get to meet the President (more on that later). But when I look back at my time on the campaign, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind. I would have to say the coolest part of being involved in the campaign was all the people I met along the way. I met tons of great people in my neighborhood and on the campaign; we made phone-banking, canvassing, and campaign work fun! I registered some first-time voters and had great conversations with undecided voters. Election night was spent at a watch party with my fellow volunteers—seeing Colorado’s results come in was pretty exciting! All of our hard work had paid off, and that was the most rewarding part! Lots of tears were shed, lots of hugs were shared, and all sorts of cheering and celebrating. All these people I met along the way became my “Obama family.”
Meeting the President was pretty amazing, I can’t deny that. I was honored to find out I was selected to meet him. Again, I got to meet more great volunteers because of this experience. While we waited on the President to arrive we chatted about what we would say to him, passed around a mirror to make sure we all looked perfect, and fed off each other’s excitement! I was surprised that I was not star-struck when I met him—he was just a regular guy. I like to say the experience was like meeting up with your uncle; it felt comfortable and easy going. When I introduced myself he replied with, “Michelle, I’m quite fond of that name.” Given how much I admire Michelle Obama, this was pretty epic! Knowing where his grandmother was from I shared with him that I grew up in the next town over. He smiled and said that we could be cousins! Our picture was taken, and we were ushered on. The whole encounter lasted less than a minute. From there we were taken into the auditorium to hear the President speak about women’s issues. After meeting the President and hearing him speak live I was even more proud to be volunteering on his campaign.
SS: Biggest lesson learned?
MC: As I prepared to graduate college and looked to start my career, I always said I wanted to work with a nonprofit organization, and that has remained my primary focus post-graduation as I job hunt. Volunteering on the campaign proved to me that community organizing and NPO work is truly my calling. While I may have to work in other areas in the meantime, I know in my heart that I am meant for the nonprofit world.
SS: What’s next for you?
MC: Currently? Planning a trip to Washington DC for the Inauguration!
SS: What advice do you have for young people regarding civic engagement and political involvement? Why do you think it is so important?
MC: Look at what is important to you; figure out what makes you think, “This cause is too important for me NOT to get involved!” Tap into that passion and find a cause that supports it. We’ve all heard the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Change starts with people like you and me; we have to get involved if we want to see change. No matter the scope of that change, what is important is that you get involved.
Following this interview, Michelle informed us of some more exciting news. Michelle and her parents had planned a trip to DC for the Inauguration. In preparation, her mother, who recently retired, had been researching what kind of events the trio could get access to. Each of them signed up to volunteer for Inauguration events, anticipating that their chances of getting selected were minimal. However, Michelle has been selected to serve the President at the Staff Ball on tonight, January 22, 20123, in Washington, D.C. She had to extend her travel dates but is thrilled at the opportunity, especially because she realized she may have the chance to meet Michelle Obama.