A Capitol Experience

Students meet Washington insiders and pepper them with questions

Two-week Washington Center seminar
No matter what query Suffolk students posed to the congressmen, policy makers, and lobbyists they met during a two-week seminar in Washington, DC, they always seemed to get the same initial response:

”Great question.”

Thoughtful and knowledgeable questions made the 20 Suffolk undergrad and graduate students stand out among peers from across the country as they were immersed in government policy and politics through an Inside Washington seminar organized by The Washington Center.
Students walking in DC
Suffolk students on the move in Washington, D.C.

The Wall & the Government Shutdown

The Suffolk group was in Washington to see government in action, and although the seminar coincided with the January government shutdown, they met with politicians trying to end the stalemate, and the crisis offered plenty of fodder for dialogue with policy makers, journalists, lobbyists, and average citizens they encountered.

The discussion took off on their second day in Washington, when Suffolk students had gathered to watch and discuss President Donald Trump’s prime-time address about the United States’ Southern border and his demand for a multi-billion dollar expenditure to build a wall.
Students meeting with Congressman Joe Kennedy
Congressman Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., holds a lively exchange with students in his Washington office.

We join them later in the week, when Suffolk students pepper Congressman Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., with questions as they crowd into his Capitol Hill office:

Ryan Pocock: “What was the tipping point for the government shutdown over the wall?”

Kennedy: “We could have solved that problem fifteen times over if the House had been allowed to vote on it. There was a deal….”

Sandy Ruelas: “How are your constituents reacting to the shutdown over the wall?”

Kennedy: “I’m hearing outrage and being told not to cave in to Trump’s demands.”

A loud buzzer interrupts the conversation, and an aide tells the students that it's time for the congressman to head to the House floor for a vote.

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Class meeting to discuss day's events
Daily meetings are held to discuss ideas addressed by speakers and on site visits, and the students write briefs during the two-week Inside Washington seminar, followed by a research paper completed during the spring semester.

Checks & Balances

The students process the day’s events in a class discussion with Suffolk Government Professor Christina Kulich-Vamvakas, who is teaching the spring-semester course connected to the Washington seminar.

Part of the discussion centers on the government shutdown, the border wall and the competing priorities of branches of government controlled by different parties. Kulich-Vamvakas reminds the students of a point made by foreign policy expert Alina Polyakova during a panel discussion that morning: President Barack Obama had employed an executive order to push through the Iran nuclear deal, “so making an end run around Congress is definitely not without precedent. Shutdowns over policy disputes are also not without precedent. What about declaring a State of Emergency?”

The students contend that separation of powers, checks and balances, and more are at stake if the president skips past Congressional oversight by resorting to an emergency order.

Moreover, “if you give in on the wall to reopen the government, it might encourage people to use that ploy again. They should open the government first and then discuss it,” says Sara Solomon, Class of 2019, a Government major with a concentration in Law and Public Policy who also is working on a paralegal certificate.
Group photo in front of Capitol building
Washington's classical architecture provided a backdrop for innumerable photos as the students traveled around the capitol.

Seeing the House in Action

The students are on hand on the evening of January 8 as the U.S. House takes up a bill to close loopholes in the system of background checks for gun buyers.

It is the eighth anniversary of the Tucson, Arizona, shooting that claimed six lives and wounded 13 people who had gathered for a constituent meeting with then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived a gunshot wound to the head inflicted that day.

Giffords is on the House floor for the bill’s introduction and for a moment of silence for victims of gun violence.

“I didn’t know she was going to be there,” says Serenity Mahadeo, Class of 2019, a law major, who was particularly moved because she is an Arizona native.

Kulich-Vamvakas says it was eye-opening for students to see firsthand what’s happening on the floor of the House rather than to merely read about it.

“A moment of silence was forced on the whole chamber on the anniversary of a mass shooting, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) came over from the Senate in a coordinated Democratic effort to set an agenda for a Congress no longer dominated by one party,” says Kulich-Vamvakas. “For students to see how hard-baked those core beliefs are—or are not—is fascinating.”
Student speaks during class meeting
Serenity Mahadeo makes a point during a Suffolk group meeting to discuss the day's speakers and events.
Student and congresswoman in conversation
Ryan Pocock converses with Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Mass. He enjoyed seeing elected representatives acting “as ordinary people.” 

Politicians Seen as Ordinary…

For graduate student Ryan Pocock, the House visit dispels any notion that representatives are rarefied elites.

“It was the most casual thing,” with members talking informally between votes and behaving like “everyday people,” he says.

Perhaps most surprising to Pocock was seeing that the chamber is, for the most part, empty when House members give their speeches, with only the eye of the C-Span camera on them, transmitting to whatever audience may be tuned in.

“One member said: ‘This is my first speech ever,’ but there were only three staffers on the floor,” notes Pocock, who is studying Political Science and American politics.

…Or Exceptional?

Solomon was particularly excited about meeting Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, one of the progressive newcomers who have created a stir in Congress.

“As a woman of color, meeting with Ayanna was such an empowering experience,” says Solomon. "During my two weeks at the Washington Center I had yet to see a black female panelist speak to us, and I’m grateful for Professor Kulich and her ability to set this meeting up.”

Andres Cayuela Pomar, Class of 2019, an International Relations major who, like Solomon, has roots in Europe, is fascinated by the American response to politics and politicians.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley puts an arm over Sara Solomon's shoulder
Sara Solomon meets Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley
Group photo with Congressman Joe Kennedy
Students pose with Congressman Joe Kennedy following their question-and-answer session in his office.

“One interesting thing is to see how they deal with meeting celebrity politicians, such as when we met Representative Kennedy,” says Cayuela Pomar. “For a lot of them it looked like they were meeting a monarch, and it is really interesting to see how these people are elevated to such a social status that [some students] have no words to describe how they feel meeting these governmental officials.”
Congressman Jim McGovern holds gift from Suffolk group
Professor Christina Kulich-Vamvakas presented Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., onetime chief of staff to the late Congressman Joseph “Joe” Moakley, with a collage from Suffolk’s Moakley Archive & Institute. It includes a photo of Moakley, campaign materials, and an image showing nesting dolls representing Russian leaders. The gift was prominently displayed in the Rules Committee room when the Suffolk group met with McGovern there later. Kulich-Vamvakas and students William Lemos and Alexandra Polaski flank McGovern. The students conducted research in the Moakley Archive when they returned from Washington.

Bridging the Divide

In a conversation that would surprise many Americans in this era of fierce partisanship, Congressmen Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chair of the Rules Committee, and Tom Reed, R-NY, cochair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, discuss areas of agreement. The Problem Solvers Caucus is made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats seeking common ground on issues.

McGovern at one point responds to Reed’s assertion that voters of all stripes need to be listened to and that representatives should develop relationships across the aisle by declaring: “I agree with everything he’s saying. If I know someone, if I know his family, I may disagree with him, but I’ll disagree in a different way.”

The comment was in response to a question from Alexandra Polaski, Class of 2020, who follows up by saying: “Thank you for giving us hope.” That spurs a round of applause from all the students gathered for the evening discussion at the Washington Center.

Both congressmen say that they followed a path to Congress because they wanted to help people, even though they might have different ideas about how to do so.

Alexandra Polaski at microphone
Alexandra Polaski asks a question of congressional panelists.

An International Perspective on Bipartisanship

The emphasis on bipartisanship and compromise interests Cayuela Pomar.

“Not coming from the United States, I’m getting to see not only how the American government works, but also how Americans themselves view it,” he said. “I've been asking a lot about polarization. Where I come from, in Spain, polarization is kind of the norm. Even eighty years after the [Spanish] Civil War, there is still violence in the streets based on your beliefs. So it's interesting to see Americans talk about how difficult it is to work together because of polarization, coming from a place where you can get stabbed or jumped for your views. On the other hand it’s really interesting to see the desire for a return to an era where there was more agreement across the aisle.”
Students listen intently during class meeting
Serenity Mahadeo, Andres Cayuela Pomar, and Amelia Zheng concentrate on the group discussion.


Cayuela Pomar sees bipartisanship as a pragmatic approach for a party that’s not in power.

“From the Democratic side, the reason they emphasize bipartisanship a lot is because… it is hard to come to an agreement on the ends, what the goals are, and so they have to focus on the means, and the means are bipartisan agreement,” says Cayuela Pomar. “But by doing that they are letting go of the willingness to fight for something. Roger Fisk told us the key factor for a candidate is honesty —honesty for their beliefs, their goals. If a candidate hasn’t expressed goals in terms of: Here's what I want to do with policy; here's where I want to get our country to, and instead says: I want to go to Congress and be a compromising bipartisan, they’re not being honest with the voters.”
Student speaks with Roger Fisk
Roger Fisk, a Suffolk alumnus, is a campaign and media strategist who was involved in both Obama presidential campaigns, served in President Obama’s administration, and was a senior aide to former Sen. Kerry. He met with the Suffolk students during their Washington seminar.

Worth a Thousand Words

Another Sort of Insider

As their first week with The Washington Center ends, a record is set for the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Plans to visit the Smithsonian during weekend free time are abandoned; the nation’s public museums are shut tight. But the students tour the national monuments, catch up on the program’s writing assignments, and enjoy a dinner out in celebration of a classmate’s birthday.

As the shutdown drags on, they also learn how it affects people whose livelihoods are intertwined with those of government workers, like a Lyft driver lamenting the lack of business on a Thursday night.

Another Lyft driver faces a double whammy. “The driver was a recent college grad who was furloughed during the shutdown,” said William Lemos, a student in the Master of Public Administration/Political Science dual-degree program. “He said he had to drive to keep a roof over his head, to repay loans. He’s not what we think of as a Washington insider, but he’s a real insider.”

Walking and Talking Inside Washington

Brexit

On the students’ second Tuesday in Washington, the British Parliament registers the first of many rejections of Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiated terms for exiting the European Union.

Brexit is of particular interest to Sara Solomon, who, while born in Boston, has lived most of her life in Italy and had to learn English before enrolling at Suffolk University.

Solomon, Class of 2019, is intrigued by the arguments on behalf of the “Brexiteers,” presented the previous week by Nile Gardiner, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, although she says she “disagrees with almost everything he said.”

Yet “it’s good to hear an opposing view of Brexit,” says Solomon. “The biggest thing that I took out of it was realizing that even the opposing side has a logical argument.”

The panel discussion on “Foreign Policy in the Era of Trump,” which also included Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institute and Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, had been contentious at times. The idea of taking another vote was raised, based on the argument that British voters are now more aware of the ramifications of leaving the European Union.

“No matter how heated the argument is, it’s important to be able to separate yourself from your feelings and separate yourself from the other person's feelings…and really fully listen,” says Solomon. “It’s a democratic process, and we need to respect the process. …Do we really have to change our votes, because if we can do that we're setting the wrong example for future generations that will want to always vote again whenever something doesn't go the way they want it to.”

Foreign Policy

The discussion also had touched on Russian influence in Syria, digital conflict, China’s long-term aims, and the Iran nuclear deal in the context of Trump’s withdrawal and restoration of sanctions.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Suffolk student Andres del Castillo, a junior majoring in Law and Public Policy, asks how much concern there is about China’s wielding “soft power” to developing countries in Latin America through investment and lending.

“Soft power equals diplomacy, and China is playing a short- and long-term game,” says Polyakova. “My fear is that unless the United States keeps its allies in its orbit, we may lose to China.”
Hands of lobbyist gesture as students listen
Students listen to a presentation during a site visit to the Council for a Strong America, a nonprofit lobbying group.

Career Considerations

The students encounter several Washingtonians who offer career advice based on their own experiences.

For jobs in politics, “be willing to do whatever you’re asked to do, smile, and do more,” advises Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist who is now executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service. “Politics is a meritocracy….and check your ego at the door.”

Students also hear from journalists, lobbyists, White House spokespeople, policy-makers and others who offered a taste of the many career options in the nation’s capital.
Discussion continues as students stop at coffee shop
The conversation continues to flow as students stop for a coffee break.

“It's been pretty fascinating to see the different pathways from the speakers and learn about their career trajectories,” says Sandy Ruelas, a student in the Master of Applied Politics program. “That's been very useful for me in terms of thinking about what I want to do next.”

For Keith Horvath, who discovered from a communications internship and a later, more satisfying experience working on data analysis with the Suffolk University Political Research Center, the sessions with communications specialists confirmed a shift in career goals.

“Hearing people who are actually farther along in a [communications] career gave me solidified confidence that that's not a path I would like to pursue,” said Horvath, Class of 2019, who is studying Government with an American Politics concentration and minoring in Law & Paralegal Studies. The Washington experience also gave him “a clearer idea of what I would like to pursue, so all in all, it’s a great experience.”
Guest speaker talks with students
Former RNC Chair Michael Steele chats with William Lemos after giving a talk at The Washington Center.

William Lemos went to Washington with the goal of returning there for work after graduation. But the lifelong New Englander now believes that he should spend some time getting to know the people and issues in other parts of the country before landing in DC. However, he is more adamant than ever about pursuing a career “as a public servant to improve our country.”

Lemos pushed back against what he perceived as a discouraging message from Congresswoman Lori Trahan in her first floor speech to the House of Representatives. Trahan, who began her political career as a scheduler in a congressional office, said that another impact of the shutdown might be that people may no longer want to work for the federal government and that public service is losing great minds to the private-sector, according to Lemos.

“I say: You know what Lori, I’m not going to be one of those people. You're calling out my generation? I'm going to prove you wrong, because I think I’m a great mind, and I’d love to work for a state or eventually the federal government. Why not devote myself to the betterment of my country?”

Suffolk University/Washington Center Programs

Suffolk University offers the following programs through its partnership with The Washington Center:

  • Inside Washington Seminar
  • Academic Internship
  • National Security Seminar
  • Campaign 2020: National Conventions Seminars
  • Inauguration 2021 Academic Seminar
Capitol dome shines against dark clouds

Contact

Greg Gatlin
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Office of Public Affairs
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