Preparing for the president

Students Organizing for America spent Saturday ensuring everyone on campus knew about the president’s speech.

by Laura Sievert

Jeb SaelensâÄô day began with a large coffee around 8:30 a.m., hours before President Barack Obama stepped off Air Force One.

Saelens is the president of Students Organizing for America, a group of University of Minnesota students affiliated with the national group Organizing for America âÄî the organizing arm of the Democratic Party that developed out of ObamaâÄôs 2008 campaign committee. Before SaturdayâÄôs rally, it was SaelensâÄô job to make sure as many people as possible had been invited to hear the president speak on campus.

Right away at 8:30 a.m., he was focusing on social media, trying to get the word out through e-mail and Facebook.

An hour later, he picked up some necessary supplies, including chalk, and headed to TCF Bank Stadium.

Every new wave of Gophers fans to use the University Avenue crosswalk on Oak Street was greeted by SaelensâÄô voice shouting through a cheerleading megaphone.

“President of the United States on campus today,” he shouted, “Only a block away!”

A group of about 20 SOFA members with signs, stickers and fliers stood next to him. The groupâÄôs loud reminder that fans could attend the rally after the game was met with a mix of cheers and boos.

Once the game started, Saelens huddled with his SOFA team and adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy. He created three groups, one going to the first-year dormitories, another knocking on doors in Dinkytown and the last team chalking all over campus.

At 12:30 p.m., the group met back at the University Field House for the rally. They flashed their VIP tickets, skipped the mile-long line, found a spot about 30 feet from the podium and waited for hours with nothing but cell phone games and phone calls to entertain them.

As the crowds piled into the Field House, Saelens got a text telling him that there were already more than 10,000 people there. He couldnâÄôt help but smile. Standing at 6 feet and 1 inch tall, he looked nonchalantly over the crowds at what he helped organize.

As the president of the United States took the stage, the group members watched intently, laughing, cheering and booing on ObamaâÄôs cue.

At the end of the rally, Saelens received hugs, high-fives and fist bumps from many around him as congratulations.

“Words canâÄôt even describe how I feel right now,” he said. “Everything weâÄôve been working for was so worth it, just seeing him there so close.”

“We wanted him to come here so bad”

In August, Saelens was sitting around and talking one night with some friends when he said, “Hey, wouldnâÄôt it be cool if Obama came?”

About a month later, he learned that Obama would be in Minneapolis for a fundraising event in October. Saelens wasted no time. He contacted Graham Wilson, the state director of OFA, to see if Obama could visit the University campus.

“We wanted him to come here so bad,” Saelens said. “I pleaded and pleaded and pleaded.”

Once he heard that Obama was really coming to campus, sophomore SOFA volunteer Danie Mitchell said getting the word out became SaelensâÄô life.

SOFA uses what Saelens calls “unconventional methods” of getting through to University students on a friend-to-friend level. For example, he said, they tried to get students to vote while at parties, making political bets on beer-pong games.

If SOFA won, they gained another volunteer, Saelens said.

The Monday and Wednesday before the rally, Saelens sent SOFA member Jonathan Walker and a team of 10 volunteers on “dorm storms,” knocking on first yearsâÄô doors to tell them about the rally.

“We wanted to fill this space,” Walker said, “and we wanted the majority of that to be students.”