LAND O'LAKES — Ben Herndon has kept a keen eye on the 2012 presidential election, favoring Ron Paul and his libertarian tendencies.
When offered the chance to work at the Republican National Convention, he jumped at it. Not for the politics, though. For the experience.
"I want to be a chef," said Herndon, 18, an advanced culinary arts student at Land O'Lakes High School. "This is a great opportunity."
He and 25 classmates learned on the first day of school that they would be working in the kitchens at the Tampa Bay Times Forum during the convention. They'll be making sandwiches for grab-and-go lunches, washing dishes and taking on any other assignments that come their way.
They're the only high school students to receive such an invitation. They owe it to their instructor, Michael Rigberg, who used to be the Times Forum's executive chef and has worked on the details for nearly a year.
"It will be truly getting experience in the back of the house of a kitchen," Rigberg said. "It's so the advanced kids can get the opportunity of a lifetime."
Some of the students have begun thinking about how they might have even a crumb of impact on the major national event.
Maybe they'll have some small interaction with someone important. Maybe Mitt Romney will get one of their sandwiches, they mused, if he goes the simple route instead of getting something catered.
Kiara Argueta, 17, said she hopes to get a little time to see part of the big show.
"If you go to a big thing like that and not even try to do anything else, it would be kind of a waste," she said.
But Rigberg stressed that the students will not have the time: "The students won't be anywhere near the political part of the Republican National Convention."
If so, that's okay, they said.
"It's cool," said Sean Ytuarte, 17, another future chef. "I'd rather just be in the kitchen helping."
The students will be graded for their performance. But the importance of doing the job right came through when they had their pictures taken and had the Secret Service conduct background checks on them.
"You don't get stuff like this all the time," said Alexa Vaughan, 18. "This is a big event."
The people working behind the scenes will know that Land O'Lakes students are in the house. The students will wear their official school culinary arts chef coats, aprons, neckerchiefs and toques, along with black pants and nonstick shoes.
Vaughan admitted to being a bit nervous about the gravity of the task ahead.
"It's going to be so hectic, with so many people," she said.
Herndon tried to put it all into perspective.
"As long as you do your job," he said, "everything else will be fine."
The Land O'Lakes students will work in split shifts, each with two days at the convention. They are scheduled to work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for a grade, and they still have to complete all of the work that they miss while they're away.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.