TAMPA — Ashleigh Powers stood at the center of the nearly empty Tampa Bay Times Forum, feeling nervous and excited and like the crowd was already there.
In just a few weeks, the place would be filled with thousands of delegates and journalists. Powers, a 22-year-old University of South Florida mass communications student with a background in theater, would be behind the scenes, helping, in a small way, bring the beast to life.
But on this day, it was quiet. Men hung unglamorously from the ceiling rigging lights. People walked around checking speakers, directing equipment here and there.
Suddenly, the place was flooded with red and blue and white. An extraordinary light show was being tested. Crew members barely looked up.
She looked over at another Republican National Convention production team intern, another convention first-timer.
"We just stood there and thought, we have no clue about what's going to hit us," Powers said. "But we had the feeling that it's going to be something monumental."
For local college students such as Powers, the upcoming RNC offers quite the learning experience.
Some have blogging internships with national media outlets. Some are being used as "runners," which is exactly what it sounds like. Political students are working with the RNC host committee. Some student journalists have been given media credentials to cover the event.
They've been warned to expect 12-plus-hour days, to wear sneakers and to come with plenty of energy. Most are getting paid minimum wage. But that's not why they're doing it.
They want to network. They want to get a taste of the real-life careers behind their majors. They want interesting stories to tell in graduate school applications. They want to meet political hotshots. They want to learn something. They want to have fun.
"I'm just so excited about the entire event that I just wish I could articulate it more," Powers said. "It's … I … just … every day going forward I have a smile on my face. The days just fly by. Every day is just one step closer to this huge thing that's coming."
That's the way Patrick Brathwaite feels, too.
As one of six Hillsborough Community College students chosen to participate in an RNC academic internship through the Washington Center in Washington, D.C., aspiring law student Brathwaite will be learning about the convention as it happens. He will participate in a week of seminars focusing on political and convention-related topics, then spend the next week watching the RNC happen from the convention floor.
Brathwaite, a political junkie who watches C-SPAN for fun, was also chosen to participate in an internship at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
"Unfathomable" is the way he describes the opportunities.
"I will definitely be a walking sponge," Brathwaite said.
Over at the University of Tampa, with most students preparing for their first week of classes or getting ready to move into the dorms, 21-year-old Joshua Napier is hard at work producing a special RNC magazine edition of the university's student newspaper, the Minaret.
As editor in chief, Napier would have had his hands full with that alone. But Napier now has another huge responsibility.
He got his own media credentials to cover the convention.
"This is the biggest opportunity I've been given as a student journalist," Napier said. "Definitely great resume material."
The Minaret's RNC edition comes out Aug. 23 — just a few days before the convention starts. It will include stories about the convention's effects on student activities, local businesses and traffic. It will give students tips for getting involved.
Then, when the big week begins, Napier will post live stories on the paper's website.
He'll try to score at least one interview with a politician or delegate. He'll watch out for police skirmishes and protester activity. He'll try to capture the flavor of the whole thing for all those other students stuck in class.
He's not totally sure what to expect but he has some idea.
"Basically," Napier guesses, "it's going to be nuts."
That's what Talia Landman has been preparing for.
The USF telecommunication senior is one of a group of mass communications students working as runners for major news agencies. She'll be with CBS.
To get the students ready, a USF professor organized an RNC boot camp of sorts, covering everything from the history of the Republican Party to personal safety when outside with potentially violent protesters.
"It was a little overwhelming," Landman said, "but I've just been really excited about it."
While she won't know what she'll be doing until the week of, Landman expects to pick up news crews from the airport, shuttle equipment around, take people lunch and do blogging and posting to social media sites.
In between, and if there's time, she hopes to shake a few hands and inquire about future internship opportunities. Most of all, she said, she just wants to do a good job. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Landman said. "I just can't even imagine what it's going to be like."