LOS ANGELES -- Alexis Greco has not attended a class all semester at Occidental College here. She has not so much as thumbed through a book. No time, she said.
Instead, Ms. Greco, a senior, has spent nearly all of her waking hours at the Senate campaign headquarters for Mazie K. Hirono in Honolulu, where she has been working as the volunteer coordinator.
Her reading has consisted of endless lists of phone numbers and tough-to-pronounce Hawaiian names, which she gives to volunteers to call. When she feels cooped up inside, she might walk door to door to ask voters if they plan to support Ms. Hirono, a Democratic congresswoman who is battling a tough Republican challenger for a Senate seat her party has held for decades.
"The sheer number of hours is really hard," Ms. Greco, 21, said. "But I wouldn't change my decision to come here for the world, even knowing that it's been overwhelming at times."
Ms. Greco is one of the 32 Occidental undergraduates who fanned out across the country this fall on "campaign semester," a program that allows students to earn a semester of college credit for working on political campaigns.
Campaign semester, which began in 2008 (when Occidental's most famous former student, Barack Obama, was running for the presidency), is apparently the only program of its kind in the country, college officials said. And this year, it has offered students a front-row view of one of the tightest presidential contests in memory.
"You can read all the textbooks in the world about campaigns and elections, but until you've worked on one, you don't realize how chaotic and exciting it is," said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics and chairman of the Urban and Environmental Policy department at Occidental.
After Election Day, the students return to campus, where they take part in a seminar, discussing their experiences and reading about the more theoretical aspects of campaigns. "We try to get them to think analytically about it; we are a college after all," Mr. Dreier said.
For the first 10 weeks of the semester, though, all learning is hands-on. Fueled by coffee and adrenaline, students put in 15-hour days, all unpaid, often doing unglamorous grunt work that may not be exactly as intellectually rigorous as parsing the nuances of Immanuel Kant.
Tyler Rosen, a sophomore, has been working in the finance department for Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat running for re-election in Ohio. On weekends, as a break from researching donors, he canvasses, walking down streets with alternating Obama and Romney yard signs in the suburbs outside Cincinnati.
He said he had been buoyed through the long hours by the chance to exert some influence -- and in Ohio, any influence, however small, could prove profound -- on the arc of this country's history. "This is a battleground state, and it does feel like a battle," Mr. Rosen said. "I feel like I'm making a difference."
For Ms. Greco, the lessons of her first two months in Hawaii have been about work ethic and independence.
Like all the other students, she had to find her own place to live. And when she grew bored of answering phones and refilling coolers, she spoke to the campaign field director, who invited her to sit in on meetings with senior staff members, and soon put her in charge of a daily e-mail to Ms. Hirono's supporters in Washington.
"I've learned that in the workplace it's O.K. to ask for things," she said. "I wanted to be more aware of what the campaign looked like from a bird's-eye view. And you can learn so much just being around senior staff."
Students at Occidental tend to be Democrats, so the college makes a point of encouraging those with more conservative views to take advantage of the program.
While Mr. Rosen and Ms. Greco were already set in their political beliefs when they arrived, Shannon O'Hara was not initially even sure which party she wanted to support when she signed up for campaign semester.
She eventually decided on Linda Lingle, the moderate Republican former governor of Hawaii who is now Ms. Hirono's opponent in the Senate race. And her time with the Lingle campaign has solidified her political views.
Sitting in a car with Ms. Lingle soon after she arrived in Honolulu, Ms. O'Hara was voicing her frustration with party labels, which left some voters unwilling to consider supporting the former governor. Ms. Lingle offered her some advice.
"She said: 'Remain an independent thinker. Never let someone define you. Never let a party define you. Remain independent,' " Ms. O'Hara said.
Mr. Dreier said he hoped that for some students, the work they did this semester would become a calling, as it did for Margot Seigle, who spent the fall of 2008 working on the Obama campaign in Virginia.
After only a few weeks, she was sent off on her own to run a new campaign office in a rural area of the state. The town remained largely segregated, she said, and one neighborhood had such a long history of racism that the campaign would not send volunteers there to canvass.
But Ms. Seigle said disparate segments of the community -- black and white residents, homeless volunteers and devoted hunters -- all got involved in the campaign.
After her graduation from Occidental, Ms. Seigle spent three years organizing residents of public housing in New York, putting some of the skills she learned on the Obama campaign to use and hoping to foster that same sense of community.
"People that would never have spoken before really came together," she said of her experience in Virginia. "That was one of my favorite things."
In less than a week, the students will begin heading back to campus. For most of them, it will be, well, kind of a letdown. And the ones whose candidates lost, Mr. Dreier said, often return depressed and unmotivated.
"They have been in these incredibly exciting, close races where everything matters, and now reading books and writing papers seems less real," he said. "But they all overcome it. At the very least, they will never feel overworked again."
Michelle Broder Van Dyke contributed reporting from Honolulu.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.