Erin Thesing was a freshman when Barack Obama announced he was running for president. It was February 2007. She had just finished reading “The Audacity of Hope.” Feeling inspired came easy.
Then Thesing found herself among the crowd at the Field House when Obama visited campus a few days later, and that inspiration really caught fire.
“When I heard him say change starts with you — in you — it struck something in me,” the 2010 graduate says.
Thesing was so affected by Obama’s speech that she helped launch UNH Students for Obama and joined the university chapter of College Democrats where she met Brittany Weaver, also a 2010 alumna.
“It was so exciting to be on the frontlines of what we all knew would be a game-changing campaign,” Weaver says of her involvement in the early days of Obama’s campaign.
After careful consideration, Weaver’s allegiance switched to Hillary Clinton, leading to an internship with Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign. Weaver was assigned to the Dover office and helped organize the towns of Newmarket, Lee and Nottingham. Clinton ended up winning Nottingham by nine votes.
“I remember thinking that I could think of nine people I had persuaded to vote for her, which was a great feeling — that one person really could make a difference,” says Weaver, now a policy advisor for Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Weaver dedicated all of her free time to Clinton’s campaign. During the three weeks before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, when UNH students were on winter break, that meant spending as many as 12 hours a day going door-to-door and then, back at the office, updating computer files and putting together canvass packets for the next day.
Meanwhile, Thesing was volunteering at Obama events around the state, assisting with fundraisers, helping people register to vote, holding the microphone during question and answer sessions.
“Barack Obama would show up in a minivan,” Thesing says. “I couldn’t believe the level of access I had as a college freshman. It was such an opportunity for a young person in New Hampshire.”
Thesing was in her hometown of Hopkinton when the New Hampshire primary took place, organizing friends, neighbors and parents to turn out votes for Obama.
“I feel an untold amount of privilege growing up where I did. To be able to do that with the people in my town was so powerful,” she says.
After the primary, Weaver and Thesing continued to log long hours on and off campus, with both women giving up their weekends and paying their own way to visit other states — Thesing even went to Oregon — to help rouse support for their candidates. That summer Thesing traveled to Flint, Michigan, to work as a community organizer.
“It was the first time in my life that I went to a housing project,” says Thesing, a teacher at a Washington, D.C. charter school. “I can’t believe the amount of naiveté I carried with me.”
She had planned on returning to school that fall but then the campaign staff asked her to stay on. Worried she would lose her housing and health insurance, Thesing contacted her mentor, associate professor of sociology Sharyn Potter, who connected her with Ted Kirkpatrick, co-director of Justice Studies and now senior vice provost for student life.
“He said, ‘These are the kind of experiences you can’t say no to,’” Thesing says, adding she was able to build the work she did that semester in Flint into a political science internship.
Her dedication as a campaign volunteer led to a seat on a 15-member national health care reform panel and to being chosen as a New Hampshire delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
“For me, all of this was completely transformational. I found my people by having this experience,” Thesing says. “My whole perspective changed because of this — it shaped so much of who I am now. It’s part of why I became a teacher, the belief in what groups of people working together can do.
Weaver, too, says her life was shaped by her political involvement while at UNH.
“I went on to be president of the College Democrats in 2008 and worked tirelessly to elect President Obama, but I never regretted supporting Hillary in the primary,” Weaver says. “In the fall of 2009, I was fortunate to be an intern at the U.S. Department of State and was so pleased to be working under someone I had worked so hard to elect, Secretary Clinton.”
“My work on political campaigns taught me what hard work is and what being on a team means,” she adds. “If I could recommend anything to a student who wants to work in politics — whether that be on a campaign or in the government sector — it is to dig in as much as they can to the experiences they can get while in college. My work on campaigns and through internships provided me with the tools I needed to be successful after I graduated, and continue to do so today.”