URBANA – During the Democratic National Convention in Denver last month, Will Fernandez, 14, interviewed politicians and delegates. He saw Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan exchange an awkward hug, prompted by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at a morning Illinois delegation meeting.
He had some celebrity sightings, like Chevy Chase getting his picture taken with Denver police officers and "House" actor Kal Penn helping in the convention center.
And he didn't do it over the phone or from watching TV. He reported from the convention itself.
All that, and he's still a freshman. But the University Laboratory High School student has been preparing to cover politics for years – though much of that preparation happened informally, like watching MSNBC every morning.
"He has progressively gotten more and more interested in politics over the years," said his father, Mike Fernandez. "It's been part of the dinner table conversation."
His father helped him get to the convention since he was already attending as a representative of his employer, State Farm.
Will Fernandez said his trip to Denver was "a great opportunity to go to a historic moment."
The trip was conceived only weeks beforehand. "He realized I was going, and he started asking about it, and we kind of said 'gee, this can be possible,'" Mike Fernandez said. "Pretty soon, I found myself on the phone with people with the DNC and (Fernandez's mother) was on the phone with people from the school and it was done."
To participate, Fernandez got media credentials to attend some events, and was allowed to walk around the convention center, interviewing as he went.
Once at the convention, Fernandez was surprised by how accessible people were. Early in the convention, state Sen. Michael Frerichs spent time getting interviewed by Fernandez, an experience his father believes helped his son "get a good start."
"Everyone is open to talking," Fernandez said. "They're all together there, trying to let their voice be heard. What a better place to put it at than at the pinnacle of the party, where everyone's coming together?"
Fernandez said that while getting people to talk wasn't a challenge, sorting through all the information to post stories online was more difficult, and blew his "Day 1," "Day 2" plan out the window. "There were different stories that I should and did cover," he said. "I tried to be unbiased. ... I really just tried to show people what happened."
Mike Fernandez helped guide him, said the son. Mike was a political speechwriter and he is a veteran of almost every Democratic convention since 1976.
Back at Uni, students saw those happenings, as Fernandez posted regularly. (See his posts at www.uni.uiuc.edu/og/news/election-2008.)
His journalism teacher, David Porreca, said that the experience was "a great opportunity for Will. I thought it was also a great opportunity for the Online Gargoyle ... and for the rest of the school."
Porreca said the student turned in some professional-quality work and a great mix of stories. He said the student publication's staff – including Fernandez – plan to "cover election 2008 as much as possible," he said. "There is a lot of student interest in politics among the students ... even though most of them won't be able to vote."
In the meantime, Fernandez is wishing he could vote a little early.
"Everyone's different, but if we can settle those differences and find a leader who will take those differences and be able to connect them," he said, then "we will be able to make a change."