From 2016 election to 2020 caucuses, political process inspires UI graduates

Republicans and Democrats alike in the UI Class of 2020 had the opportunity to get involved on campus with the 2016 election and 2020 first-in-the-nation caucuses.


Contributed/Alex Byrnes

Caleb McCullough and Julia Shanahan

Graduating Hawkeyes have benefited from a front-row view of the nation’s presidential-nomination process, as many came onto campus months before the 2016 election and are leaving not long after the 2020 first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

University of Iowa senior Alex Byrnes served as Iowa’s College Republican Chair for the past year and was involved with the UI College Republicans during her four years on campus.

After traveling the country and parts of the world with other state College Republican and Democratic chairs, Byrnes said her biggest takeaway is learning that in politics, nothing can be done without listening to those with whom you disagree.

“We’re going to disagree, and also it’s OK to disagree with your own party,” Byrnes said. “I mean, that’s how the party modifies and changes for the better over the years… Sitting back and pointing a finger at the other side is never going to accomplish anything.”

Byrnes helped canvass for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016 leading up the Iowa caucuses. Byrnes, a resident of Osage, Iowa — a town with a population of 3,500 — said she loves to see presidential candidates visit rural towns in Iowa and met 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a fire station in her hometown.

“It was really remarkable that she, of all people, would come to the small town of Osage, Iowa,” she said. “Rural Iowa is the backbone of our Iowa economy and it’s so important that people are paying attention … and clearly our presidential candidates are seeing that.”

Byrnes will graduate with a degree in finance and has a job lined up at a firm where she will work her way up to be a financial adviser. She hopes to work with women in rural areas to help manage their finances, because she said sometimes, women may get divorced or become widowed and have never managed their own money.

Byrnes’ aunt died from ALS last year, and said that while her aunt was sick, she trusted a financial adviser to make financial arrangements for her daughters.

“Her financial adviser drove from Des Moines to Osage, which is about a two-and-a-half hour drive, to talk over her finances and really reassure her that her girls will be taken care of, financially,” Byrnes said. “He ended up being more of a friend rather than a financial adviser, and I guess that really inspired me to get into financial advising.”

Byrnes’ father Josh Byrnes represented her home district in the Iowa House for six years before retiring in 2016. Byrnes hopes to one day run for a seat in the state Legislature to represent rural Iowa.

Political events on campus also motivated UI senior Maya Mahajan to get involved. She found herself inspired to work in immigration law after the election of President Trump and the implementation of his 2017 executive order banning travel to the U.S. by foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Contributed/Maya Mahajan

Mahajan will graduate with degrees in philosophy, political science, and ethics and public policy, saying she took an average of 21 class hours each semester. Because Mahajan will apply to law schools, she said she did not want to disclose her political-party affiliation.

Mahajan was interning in Washington with the ACLU National Prison Project when COVID-19 cut her internship a couple of months short and forced her to move home to continue her work remotely. She said she was working to better mental- and medical-health care in prisons.

“In the middle of my internship, COVID hit, and that of course totally exacerbated all of the already terrible conditions,” said Mahajan, adding that she was also working alongside attorneys who were filing lawsuits to release immigrant detainees from immigration detention centers.

Among her credentials during her time at the UI, Mahajan also worked at the UI Center for Human Rights, and spent a summer working at a community legal center in East Palo Alto, California, where she worked with individuals covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and preschoolers learning English as a Second Language.

In the fall, Mahajan will travel to the Canary Islands in Spain as a Fulbright scholar to teach English to elementary-school kids.

“One of the reasons I want to do law is to work at an organization like the ACLU or like these nonprofits that work … outside of Washington politics, because I feel like sometimes that’s very restrictive,” she said.

Jenna Nelson, a graduating political-science major with a minor in rhetoric and persuasion, found similar inspiration to pursue immigration law after Trump’s election, but channeled that motivation through her work with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign during her last year on campus.

Contributed/Jenna Nelson

Nelson said the Vermont senator has inspired her since his 2016 presidential run, when she caucused for him at age 17. When he announced his candidacy for the second time, she knew she had to get involved.

“I remember specifically thinking when he announced that he was going to run for president in this election that I just couldn’t let this campaign cycle go by without doing something for the campaign,” she said.

That led Nelson to the Hawks for Bernie student group in November, one of many student groups that organized for various candidates ahead of the February presidential precinct caucuses.

A campaign organizer then suggested Nelson apply for a campaign internship. She did, and in December 2019, she was hired as a canvassing intern where she was campus, knocking doors, and phone banking 15 hours a week.

After graduating, Nelson will attend the UI College of Law with hopes of becoming an immigration lawyer, a longtime goal of Nelson’s since experiencing the 2016 election on campus.

Nelson said working on the Sanders campaign gave her more confidence in voicing her opinions, which she thinks prepared her for a career in law.

“Overall, working for the campaign just made me comfortable talking about what I believe in and fighting for what I believe in, even when I know maybe I’m approaching someone who’s going to disagree with me,” she said.

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