NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Providing 56 Hillsdale College students a glimpse into the world of conservative politics, this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference featured a variety of speakers, including President Donald Trump.
From Feb. 21 to 24, thousands converged upon the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center near Washington, D.C., to hear from White House staff and Trump administration members such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, as well as Vice President Mike Pence.
“I’ve never seen Trump in person, and it’s really different than watching him on TV,” freshman Joey Sarno said. “When I saw him in person, he seemed like real guy, and his rhetoric was actually much better than on television. He really gave the impression that you were a part of something bigger.”
Other guests included political commentator Ben Shapiro, Fox News television host Sean Hannity, and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.
“My favorite speaker was Shapiro. I’ve seen Trump before, so I think he was most exciting,” sophomore Patrick Farrell said. “I think he did a great job talking about a wide range issues from a conservative perspective. He actually has a really objective take on everything.”
Students said they felt even more directly involved in the world of D.C. politics when noticing the casual presence of these celebrity guests as they roamed the halls of the Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center, as well as surrounding restaurants in National Harbor.
“It was really great seeing all of these famous politicians and speakers,” College Republicans’ Board of Trustees member, freshman Aidan Wheeler said. “We went out to lunch, and saw Nigel Farage eating. Walking throughout the Gaylord, I saw Ben Shapiro doing an interview at Radio Free Hillsdale. Later on, we saw Nigel Farage again.”
CPAC speakers shared a special connection with Radio Free Hillsdale. Hillsdale students junior Shad Strehle and sophomore Ben Dietderich conducted interviews with guests like Ben Shapiro, Rick Harrison, and Gary Johnson.
Other students found opportunities to meet CPAC’s guest speakers by waiting backstage or making acquaintances in the general social areas.
Freshman Carl Miller took photographs with numerous CPAC speakers, including Mark Levin, Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, Nigel Farage, and Rick Harrison.
“During the 2016 election, I tried getting photos with all of the candidates. My experience with that really helped me discover how to be at the right place at the right time,” Miller said. “But it really depends on a lot of luck. I really got lucky with a lot of the opportunities to meet some of the guests.”
Students like Miller arrived at CPAC not only to grab unique opportunities to meet conservative celebrities and listen to motivational speeches, but to find rebirth in the conservative movement, as a large majority of CPAC’s attendees this year were in fact College Republican students from across the country.
“Not having been to CPAC before, what really struck me was the amount of young people,” Miller said. “It was really surprising, but really encouraging to see the rising generation.”
Students stayed a five-minute walk away at the AC Hotel on National Harbor. The Hillsdale College Republicans were able to reduce the cost from an estimated $930 per student to $180.
“I think it’s the best it has ever been, because we have been able to streamline,” acting president of College Republicans Rachel Umaña, a junior, said. “Each board had to focus on some aspect of fundraising and building up our bank account to make sure we can provide an event like this and make sure it is affordable. Students aren’t going to come if it’s not affordable.”
Students involved with College Republicans, especially on the club’s executive board, were held responsible for their different committees, each of which served a unique purpose in bringing together the overall trip.
“I joined the board in late December, and the responsibilities I was given for CPAC had to do with fundraising,” said junior Jack McPherson, a Hillsdale College Republicans board member. “I sent letters to donors and participated in a lot of member events.”
After months of fundraising efforts and a proposal to Student Federation for $3,000 — one of the lowest amounts requested in recent years — the College Republicans CPAC trip became a reality. Fundraising methods included Buffalo Wild Wings, Panera Bread, and Domino’s fundraisers; a GoFundMe campaign, and 4,000 local phone calls on behalf of Michigan College Republicans.
“I helped with fundraising and some of the logistics of the CPAC trip,” said freshman Madeline Peltzer, member of the College Republicans Board of Trustees and Chair of the Connect Committee. “I thought the energy and optimistic, upbeat environment was great. I’ve been wanting to go to CPAC for forever, and it was so great to see all of our efforts come to fruition and really enjoy ourselves.”
Despite a flat tire on the way back from D.C. which kept the group at a rest stop for nearly three hours, College Republicans Chairwoman Natalie Meckel, a junior, said the trip was an overall success.
“Everything came together incredibly well, and Rachel and I were thrilled, especially since the two of us did just about all the planning ourselves,” Meckel said. “Ross, our President, and Kaitlin, our Event Coordinator, are on WHIP this semester in D.C., so we were down to two members of the executive board on campus.”
For students who attended, the feeling was mutual, and many said they had had an overall positive experience.
“It’s a great opportunity to connect with people out of D.C.,” Farrell said. “I definitely recommend going, no matter who you are; anyone can get something out of it.”