Behind the Scenes of the VP Debate with Student Viewers, Volunteers


Natalie Colby

A ticket to the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020 in Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City.



60 University of Utah students, randomly drawn from a pool of 300 students chosen earlier in another random drawing, witnessed the debate live between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Kingsbury Hall. 

Joy Kavapalu, a third-year student studying health, society, and policy, was one of the students chosen and said she was not expecting it but was excited to be part of such a historic event.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing how Kamala handles herself in there, I know she’s an attorney and so I’m really interested to see how that dynamic will play out, especially after watching the presidential debate. I’m very curious how this will go. I’m hopeful it will go a little bit better with the candidates, being able to actually engage with one another. On a more like content level rather than just like bickering with one another,” Kavapalu said before the debate.

The debate is the second in a series of four sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, with USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page moderating. 

“When I got here I didn’t even realize that Utah was hosting the vice presidential debate and then just by luck I got selected and it was just a great experience,” freshman Henry Droll said. “[Walking in] was definitely overwhelming. There was… a lot more people, a lot more cameras and there was a lot more everything than I thought there was going to be.”

During the university’s two-week “circuit breaker” for coronavirus, a multitude of officials descended on the President’s circle to help set up and prepare for the debate. Over the course of four days, hand-selected student volunteers helped by checking credentials, driving golf carts, working with various media groups and other tasks. Some volunteers were even given tickets to the debate after working. 

Third-year doctoral candidate Lauren Burgess was a mask supervisor for the event, ensuring anyone inside the perimeter had the appropriate mask. She said she was extremely excited to be chosen as a volunteer. 

“I am super passionate about politics and staying involved. That was one of the reasons I chose the University of Utah is because it’s such a diverse community,” Burgess said. “So being chosen to volunteer for the debate and get a backstage look at something like this was really, really exciting for me.” 

Volunteers underwent checks including COVID-19 testing before being randomly assigned to different jobs. Fifth-year senior Damon Ngo helped with masks on debate day and working the door on Sunday. Ngo said volunteering with the debate was a “welcome break from the semester,” especially given the lack of a fall break.  

“Having this opportunity to volunteer has really granted me the ability to kind of get my mind off school a little bit and to do something else something that’s sort of more in line with the stuff I’m interested in in my hobbies, particularly in politics,” Ngo said. 

University of Utah mascot Swoop sits in the back of a golf cart driven by a student volunteer outside of the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Natalie Colby)

Kingsbury Hall, the location of the debate, was transformed with various media stand-ups, the debate stage itself, and all sorts of other effects to make the building ready for the debate night. 

Like the first Presidential Debate, the moderator had six topics that neither candidate, nor anyone else, knew beforehand: the COVID-19 Pandemic, China, Breonna Taylor, the Supreme Court, and economic recovery. 

Both candidates dodged some of Page’s questions: Harris refused to give a definitive answer on whether a Biden Administration would pack the Supreme Court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed or whether the Biden campaign actually supports the Green New Deal. Pence refused to answer whether it was irresponsible to have a Rose Garden ceremony to announce Barrett’s nomination, an event that has led to an outbreak of the virus among high-ranking White House officials.

Prior to the debate, the U also utilized students who fit the height requirements to stand-in as candidates, as lighting and sound crews prepared for the actual debates. 

Sociology and International Studies senior Gabriella Villalobos served as Kamala Harris’ stand-in to aid the production crew with lighting because she was also 5’2. 

“I took two major takeaways from this experience. The first one is that it takes a village. There is so much that goes behind a debate for both the president presidential debate or the VP debate,” Villalobos said. “And also that life is full of amazing surprises. I never in a million years would have imagined to be having this experience and be sitting at the same place where a VP nominee will be sitting in order to discuss important issues that affect daily Americans.” 

R.T. Williams, a senior in chemical energy, was Pence’s stand-in and said in the practice debate they mostly discussed what they would do in a zombie apocalypse and what the propper toppings were for a hamburger.

“You just kind of got to see the whole production and what goes into it… the camera, the lighting, the cables, even just all those small things that really makes the clock tick,” he said.

Following the debate, Dallen Calder, a junior studying biology and chemistry, said walking into Kingsbury Hall and realizing people all over the world would be watching this event he was seeing live was an amazing experience.

“I did appreciate this debate, specifically as well because it was still lively, it wasn’t just civil and back and forth… They showed a little bit of the passion that these candidates do have for their sides and their positions. But at the same time they were both allowed to speak their minds they weren’t yelling over each other,” Calder said.


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