'Where the real learning happens': Duke students, academic dean look back on week at Iowa Republican caucuses

Iowa Caucus Precinct 15 in Ames (2020) during First Alignment.
Iowa Caucus Precinct 15 in Ames (2020) during First Alignment.

One early morning on Jan. 4, an academic dean and 20 students left campus for an eventful five days in the lead-up to the Iowa Republican caucuses. 

The trip was meant to offer students the chance to engage with different perspectives, according to Mark Dalhouse, academic dean in the Trinity School of Arts & Sciences and the trip’s organizer. 

Dalhouse has been taking students to the Iowa caucuses every four years since 2008, when he was the assistant dean and faculty head of house at Vanderbilt. Since then, he has gone to every Iowa caucus with a group of students, including students from Vanderbilt, Elon and now Duke. 

He hopes to make the trip to the caucuses a Duke tradition. 

“There were experiences we had that I, as a dean, could not possibly recreate in a classroom. I think that's where the real learning happens. It's spontaneous, it's organic and it's the kind of thing that I think will stay with a student,” Dalhouse said.

As the first Republican caucuses in any U.S. state, the Iowa caucuses are considered a significant determiner of success for candidates jockeying for the Republican presidential nomination. Former president Donald Trump won the Iowa Republican caucuses this year by a 30-point margin, earning 51% of votes and 20 of the state’s 40 delegates. 

Students interacted with and attended events for Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis and Asa Hutchinson. 

Students had the opportunity to attend events as they heard about them spontaneously. 

First-year Anne Dillon shared that at a Vivek Ramaswamy event, the Duke students were about 20 out of 30 people there. On the first day alone, they interacted with three presidential candidates. 

As the students left campaign events, they “were talking and debating and discussing what they had heard” instead of sitting on their phones, Dalhouse said. “It was amazing to see the students really, really lean into this experience.”

The purpose of the trip was not only to interact with the presidential candidates but also with Iowan voters and media personnel. 

“We were waiting to get into a Trump rally, in a long line of people. And the most valuable part of that whole day was the fact that those Duke students got into conversations with these ordinary Iowans who were standing in line,” Dalhouse said. 

For him, students learned how to get to know “people as individuals with stories and their own narratives” instead of immediately labeling them as Trump supporters or “MAGA.”

Dillon, who was raised a Democrat in the Democratic stronghold of Chicago, agreed that the most notable part of the trip was talking to the everyday Iowan voter and getting their “unfiltered opinions.”

“There [are] these terrible, terrible perceptions of people that are so wrong … Everyone wants there to be affordable housing and good jobs and a good economy, and they want the border to be handled in a delicate and humane way,” she said. 

First-year Emily Zou also attended the trip and was particularly impacted by a conversation with a Fox News reporter who was an “embed” for Ron DeSantis’ campaign. The reporter told her that she had been assigned to his campaign and was tasked to follow him to every event — from 6 a.m. to midnight. 

Students also learned what goes into a story and how it is broadcast to the public from similar conversations and a talk with a CNN producer. 

The students are “probably [now] much more discriminating consumers of news,” Dalhouse said. 

Dillon and Zou both said the experience broadened their political perspectives. 

“Meeting people definitely made me change the way I look at politics … Because I think a lot of the Iowans care a lot more about the person and less about their policies, which I think is very different than what we're used to seeing,” Zou said. 

Dalhouse considered the trip a success, believing that Duke students learned how to be engaged citizens and got to know different perspectives. 

“I hope that Duke will look to support and fund other student groups and other professors who are going out and having these real-life experiences,” Dalhouse said. 

Ava Littman profile
Ava Littman

Ava Littman is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.  


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