About 75 students from College of the Canyons gathered at the Valencia campus’ cafeteria Wednesday night to watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tussle over matters both great and grating.
When the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees wrapped up their third and final debate of the election season – a 90-minute affair from Las Vegas that was part issue-oriented, part sandbox spat – many of the students stuck around for a discussion sponsored by the school’s Civic Engagement Committee.
And that’s when the evening took a decided turn toward civility and substance … young people talking to each other and with each other, not over each other like the candidates had spent much of the night doing.
“We’re trying to get students to be more civically engaged,” said psychology professor Shana Williams, one of the organizers of the event – at which students were also encouraged to register to vote.
Students watched on a giant TV screen hung on a stage that was festooned with red, white and blue balloons, as well as an inflatable donkey (on the left) and elephant (on the right).
While Clinton and Trump debated immigration, the economy, each other’s fitness to be president, foreign hots spots, Aleppo and the national debt – around insults, interruptions and mocking facial gestures – the students watched with focus and occasional fun-making.
Several times, a zinger from one of nominees drew laughter or applause — as when Trump said, “I don’t know Putin” (derisive snickers), or when Clinton said, “There’s only one of us on this stage who has shipped jobs to Mexico (laughter), or when Trump said, “Nobody has more respect for women than me” (big laughs and jeers).
There were also groans when Trump made what was perhaps the biggest news of the night – declining to say whether he would support or dispute the Nov. 8 election results in a race he has insisted is “rigged” against him.
“I’ll tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
To which Clinton responded, “That’s horrifying.”
When the main event was over, about 35 students remained for the discussion part of the program, moderated by political science professor Majid Mosleh.
Mosleh began his remarks with a lesson, and a lament.
“There’s nothing wrong with the institutions of our government,” he told the students, “but many people are beginning to question the quality of the candidates.”
He added, “Where are the Eisenhowers? Where are the Kennedys? The level of civility is a concern.”
Then he opened the floor for the students to comment, and commiserate.
“It was interesting to see the candidates’ actions and answers in real time,” said Jade Aubuchon, an English and business double major, and a member of the Civic Engagement Committee.
“I was watching the candidates’ faces – that was actually more informative. You can rehearse what comes out of your mouth, but not your non-verbal reactions.”
Mohammad Qayum, a political science major, said, “I just wish they (the debates) could contain more substance.”
“It’s pretty clear who’s the brightest candidate and who’s going to win,” he added. “Tonight was more of an entertainment thing.”
Qayum also complimented debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News for keeping the candidates somewhat focused on the issues amid all the sidetracks and subplots.
Henry Ouzounyan, an entertainment major, said he knew his choice in the election, and that the debate did nothing to change that point of view.
“I would vote for Hillary because she has a clear mind, and Donald Trump has a very large mouth,” he said.
Surely the most emotional reaction of the evening came from Analisa Astorga, who spoke to the allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump from women who allege he groped them and kissed them against their will.
Astorga spoke not only as a voter, but as a victim of sexual assault.
“All of these complaints have been made against Trump, and he dismisses it,” said Astorga, a psychology major, who gave The Signal permission to use her name and publish that she is a sexual-assault survivor.
“When we dismiss (accusers), we re-victimize them,” she said, adding that Trump uses his celebrity status to avoid responsibility.
“He’s getting away with it,” she said. “Our next president should not be someone who gets away with something like that.”
At another point, a leader from the Civic Engagement Committee asked the students if any of their minds had been changed by the debate. No hands went up.
Then the question: “How many know who you’re voting for?”
Numerous hands went up.
And then this shout from the back of the room: “I know who I’m NOT voting for!”