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Candidates fail to connect with UNLV students

Heidi Kyser
Fourth-year biology student Hyunbae Son says the candidates didn't address education issues in enough depth.

Both of the major presidential candidates need the support of young voters, though for different reasons — Hillary Clinton to win votes that she lost to Barack Obama in 2008 (and to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary), and Donald Trump to avoid the Republican party’s total alienation of millennials. A showdown between the candidates at a public university seems an ideal opportunity to connect with students, but if the Rebels who talked to me in the days before and after the October 19 debate held at UNLV are any indication, Clinton and Trump failed to take advantage of it.

“If they were really speaking to me as a student, then I would say they would have come into the classroom, or wouldn’t have forced me to reschedule my classes,” Logan Gifford, vice president of UNLV College Republicans, said. Gifford and others would have appreciated opportunities for student leaders to meet with and hear from the candidates outside the strictly controlled environment of the debate hall.

Cumbersome security situations aside, the students I talked to said they’ve been listening for someone to address their hopes and fears for months, and many are simply not hearing what they want to from the two leading candidates. Here’s a summary of the issues and policies they said they wished the candidates would address in the debate.

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  • Social issues came up the most frequently, with seven of 12 students specifically citing social justice, race relations, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, law-enforcement accountability and mass incarceration as concerns. Women’s rights — including reproductive rights and healthcare access — also got special mention. As for related policies, two students said they prefer a candidate who supports civil rights legislation, while others were more specific, asking for nondiscrimination employment laws, public accommodation laws, restroom rights and equal access to healthcare for LGBTQ folk.
  • Not surprisingly, given the venue, the cost of higher education was the second-biggest concern, with four students naming this as a preoccupying issue. Similarly, four people said student loan debt relief is a policy they’d like to see a candidate support; one brought up increased funding for public universities; and another suggested shifting some military spending to education. Childhood education came up, too, with one person saying he was concerned about free access to quality schooling for all children and another supporting increased funding for pre-K programs.
  • Four students also pointed to foreign relations as an area of concern, though their points of view on related policy varied, from increased aid to countries that need it and are key to U.S. involvement abroad, to nuclear proliferation control measures.
  • Likewise, immigration was top-of-mind for three students, but whereas two said they support policies like DACA and a pathway to citizenship, one, who named national security as a worry, said she preferred increased border security and extreme vetting.
  • The other issues raised demonstrate students’ individuality as much as their keen awareness of current events: Campus open carry, climate change, the economy/jobs, education benefits for veterans, energy independence, science education and Supreme Court nominations were all on their radars. Other policies they said they’d like to see the candidates support were the 15-percent business tax, Obama’s Clean Power Plan and increased funding for scientific research.

So, how did the candidates do in addressing these issues and policies during the debate? I circled back with the students I’d interviewed pre-event to find out. Based on their responses, the debaters earned a C, at best.

  • None of my concerns were addressed extensively (i.e., social justice, education, etcetera),” said Kirk Talib-deen, president of the Black Graduate Students Association. “Things were touched on, but nothing moved me. I’m not moved by the political rhetoric to gain votes.”
  • “I wanted to hear more about each candidate’s point of view on education, but it unfortunately was not covered as I wanted,” said Hyunbae Son, a fourth-year biology student.
  • “This debate was more of the same mudslinging,” said Oliver Borg, a second-year hospitality major and honors college member. “At first, I was excited and impressed; when the candidates were actually talking about substantive issues and what their approaches would be. But then it devolved into a flurry of emotional banter. It was frustrating …”
  • “I heard them talk a lot about foreign policy, which is critical,” Bruno Moya, president of Rebel Vets, said. “There were valid arguments, like about the current situation in Mosul, Russia and Iran, but there was no mention of other terrorist organizations in the region that are as dangerous as ISIS and have shown to be in it for the long run.”
  • “I was very satisfied that this debate stuck to policy more than the previous debate,” Ember Smith, a freshman who’s in the honor college and on the debate team, texted me from the Thomas & Mack Center, where the debate took place. “I didn’t think Hillary did a great job on the abortion question, but did a fantastic job handling the second amendment question and displayed her experience compared to Trump’s very well.”
  • The issue of police brutality and the prison industrial complex deserves a larger platform within these conversations,” said Caitlyn Caruso, an LGBTQ activist. “This debate solidified my vote for Hillary Clinton, simply because there is too much at stake.”

None of the seven students I was successful in reaching after the debate said their mind had been changed by what they’d heard. If that’s reflective of everyone who shared their views, both before and after, then Clinton can expect four votes, in addition to Smith’s and Caurso’s, and Trump will get two. Of the remainder, two were undecided, one said he’d vote “None of the above,” and one declined to say whom he favored.
But the real winner might be society. Regardless of which candidate they supported, all students said they stood for civil discourse, inclusiveness and respect for diverging points of view. One thing they’d all like to see is more collaboration and less arguing. Let’s hope they haven’t given up on that by 2020.


Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.