Director’s column: Washington Seminar Summertime learning in the heart of policymaking

Eric “Every minute of every day in the midst of American democracy.” This is how UW-Baraboo student Heather Breunig described her experience in the first class of WIPPS’ Washington Seminar. For her and 11 other Wisconsin university students, three weeks of real-time learning in Madison and Washington left them with a life-changing view of government and the political process.

The students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, said the seminar gave them a renewed commitment to personal civic participation. They decided that healthy skepticism is a more appropriate approach to politics than deliberate cynicism.  Student Hunter Shawley, from UW-Baraboo-Sauk County, noted: “Through the course, we were given perhaps the most important gift . . . the opportunity and courage to speak up and ask questions of legislators and bureaucrats while maintaining a healthy, respectful skepticism.”

After hearing from high-level policy influencers in one-on-one sessions, the group agreed there is common ground on two key issues:

  1. We must strive to avoid the cynicism that dominates the political landscape, and
  2. Americans need to be more civically engaged.

One key take-away from three weeks of daily interactions with a host of government leaders and their staff is that it is possible to have a dialogue with policy makers. “Having the ability to ask policymakers my own questions and engage them in conversation was beyond a doubt the best part of the program,” said Tristan Tully from UW-Fox Valley.

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Students were unanimous in recommending the program to their peers. “I would recommend this course to anyone,” said Madeline Braun from UW-Manitowoc. If I had a chance to do it again, I absolutely would.”  Mirella Espino, from UW-Marathon County echoed, “This was definitely an amazing experience and I recommend to anyone who can take this course to do so.”

The program is open to any student from Wisconsin. This year’s group hailed from across the state, including two-year UW schools, as well as UW-Stevens Point, and two private universities. Costs were kept low to attract less-advantaged students. Special scholarships were given, thanks to generous funding from the Murco Foundation and the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.

During the first week of the program in Madison, students were hosted at a reception at the UW System President’s official residence; met with staff from the Governor’s office and with Department of Workforce Development Secretary Ray Allen; met with interest groups ranging from Wisconsin Manufacturer’s & Commerce to Common Cause; benefited from the insights of legislative panels (both elected officials and permanent staff); enjoyed lunch at the Madison Club with WisPolitics and the heads of the Democratic and Republican Parties; and met with Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson; among other highlights.

Ryan

Seminar students continued their studies in Washington for two weeks. They met with national policy influencers including House Speaker Paul Ryan (shown in group photo above), Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson; executive representatives from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Office for National Drug Control Policy; New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Elizabeth Bumiller; interest group leaders and lobbyists; and policy analysts.