Adviser spotlight: David Swartzlander, Doane University

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series that will be spotlight college media advisers and the unique things they are doing. David Swartzlander is a past president of College Media Association.

What started as a last-minute idea has become a once-every-four-years tradition for David Swartzlander. Next month, for the fifth time, he will travel with a group of student reporters from Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, to cover the presidential inauguration in Washington.

Over the years, Doane students have seen two George W. Bush and two Barack Obama inaugurations and, on Jan. 20, six will be in attendance with Swartzlander when Donald Trump is sworn in as president.

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This year’s trip will be 10 days and will include the usual tourist stops along with a planned visit to the Washington Post and possible visits with CNN, the CBS Washington Bureau, NPR and the Nebraska legislative delegation. The students will provide coverage for and Nebraska publications.

The trip is open to any student who registers. They pay their own expenses and receive academic credit.

“Most of the students on the trip are journalism majors so they’ve at least had basic news writing and reporting,” said Swartzlander, the long-time adviser to student media at Doane, which includes The Doane Owl, 1014 Magazine and Doaneline.

“For those who haven’t, it’s no problem. The students and I will help teach them. It’s not as if we have immediate access to the president-elect or even the Nebraska delegation. If we have an interview with a senator, we’ll talk about questions we want to ask or themes on which we want to focus, but that’s it. They get thrown into the ocean to see whether they can swim. We always give them a flotation device and a lifeline, though. It works well.”

The trip’s origins go back to 2000, a time when Doane required a 3-week interterm in January for its students. An interterm is the time between semesters, or quarters, when on-campus and travel courses are offered in more-intense formats.

Swartzlander was assigned to teach his first interterm at Doane and running short on time and ideas.

“It was pure desperation,” he said. “One night, while tossing and turning, trying to figure out what do, it hit me. The inauguration was coming up on Jan. 20. I could take students to D.C. for two weeks and cover the events leading up.”

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Though an interterm is no longer a requirement for Doane students, the trip has remained an option. Swartzlander said this year’s group is the smallest of his five. He credits that to the loss of the requirement and the cold weather destination, and not political affiliations.

Planning for each trip starts in the spring. Swartzlander said his university’s alumni network is his biggest resource.

“We have alums who work for representatives and senators who help us get access,” he said. “One of our alums is the press secretary for the U.S. Senate. He works closely with the Judiciary Committee. We have two alums who are Secret Service officers and they have helped us get tours there in the past. … We have alum in the U.S. State Department.

“If someone is going to attempt this trip, I strongly urge them to get a list of D.C. alums from the university and use those people to help get access and to provide info to students.”

As is to be expected, these D.C. trips have come with some memorable personal stories. In his own words, here are some Swartzlander’s favorites.

  • “A first-year student didn’t want to go to one of the events we had planned. She instead wanted to attend the National Zoo where zookeepers were going to unveil the baby pandas born weeks before. We had a large group, so another professor went on the trip that year. He took all the students but this first-year student to the planned event. I took her to the National Zoo. She stood with reporters from the Washington Post, AP, CNN, etc. and covered those pandas. And her story hit page 1 of the Lincoln Journal Star.”

And another …

  • “(Two students) got into trouble at the Pentagon. They decided to shoot a reporter’s stand-up while going up the escalator from the Metro to the Pentagon. When they got to the top, two Pentagon Security officers had guns drawn, pointed at them. You’re not allowed to shoot video at the Pentagon. They both were scared to death, though the guards didn’t do anything.”

And another …

  • “One of my students, who is blind, came on the trip. He so much wanted to be a journalist but realized that he would be unable to get to the scene of news quickly if he was blind. He was an excellent reporter and writer, but he feared his disability would keep him from any form of mass communication, until he took the trip to Washington, D.C. He then realized with the Metro, he could get anywhere he needed to go. He was hooked. He nabbed an internship at the White House, (and) then was hired by a Nebraska senator to be a press aide. He’s now the press secretary for the U.S. Senate.”

Trip No. 5 with the Doane students will be the last for Swartzlander, who will retire from teaching before 2020.

For him, each of the trips has meant a front-row seat to history.

“I never tire of the wonder in my students eyes when they gaze at the Lincoln Memorial or sit on the set of ‘Face the Nation,’ ” he said. “Or I know the trip is worth it as I see them stroll through the Holocaust Museum, tears trickling down their cheeks. Most importantly, perhaps, they learn that they need to question authority, that those differing opinions that seem to make a mess of the national conversation are actually what make democracy work”

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