By Heather Cass, Publications Manager
Office of Strategic Communication, Penn State Behrend
Political Science class gets a first-hand look at how U.S. government works
It’s one thing to study the U.S. government and how it operates in Washington, D.C. It’s another to experience it, walking the same halls that senators and congresspersons do, sitting in the same courtrooms where federal judges preside, and meeting with foreign ambassadors and lobbyists.
“After being taught in the classroom, actually seeing the historical locations in person gave me a whole new perspective,” said Justin Lopez-Beltran, a second-year student dual majoring in Political Science and Economics.
More than a dozen Penn State Behrend students enrolled in Dr. Robert Speel’s PLSC 177N Politics and Government of Washington, D.C., spent their spring break in our nation’s capital where they squeezed a lot into one week.
The group met with members of Congress and leaders of federal government agencies; received briefings from foreign embassies and international organizations; participated in seminars led by interest groups, political party officials, and consultants; and toured government offices and facilities. They visited monuments, memorials, museums, and Arlington National Cemetery, and met with many Penn State Behrend alumni who live and work in D.C.
Among the alumni in D.C. is U.S. Representative Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), a 2004 Political Science graduate, who serves on the House Rules Committee and invited the students to sit in on a committee meeting.
“This is not something the average person can do,” said Casey Mitolo, a fourth-year Political Science major. “He even gave a shout out to the class and Dr. Speel during the meeting. It was special.”
“My favorite part was visiting Capitol Hill and seeing all the politicians you admire and even some you might disagree with,” Lopez-Beltran said. “After taking multiple political science courses, it was fascinating to see politicians we have discussed and even argued about in the classroom.”
Classmate Nicklas Richar, a second-year Political Science major, agreed. “It was really cool to be inside the Capitol building and to see all the senators and representatives I’ve watched on TV and realize that they are real people doing an actual job.”
Mason Milliard, a third-year Political Science major, said he especially enjoyed meeting with Behrend alumnae Yuri Unno, director for international trade policy for Toyota, and Elizabeth Buck, deputy assistant director of the U.S. Marshals Service. “It was also really interesting to watch votes from the Senate and House galleries and sit in for a lecture at the Supreme Court,” he said.
Mitolo was surprised by the number of Behrend alumni in the capital. “It was extremely eye-opening to see all the doors that a Behrend Political Science degree can open,” he said. “We met alumni who work as political consultants, representatives, union leaders, and much more.”
The students interviewed for this story all agreed that the experience solidified their career choices.
“It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life,” Richar said. “Every single place that we visited had a rich history and important part in how our government functions. It really inspired me to continue in my career path, and I learned that the potential for jobs in this field is endless.”
“This trip 100 percent solidified my career decision,” Lopez-Beltran said. “I learned that there are countless opportunities in D.C. and a wide variety of options from campaign work to legislative work to lobbying.”
Things are not always what they seem: “I learned that, occasionally, lobbyists are the ones who have to rein in the legislators,” Milliard said. “It was surprising to hear that, from a lobbyist’s perspective, they sometimes must remind politicians that the ideas they are pushing are unrealistic. This contradicted a belief I had that politicians were the ones who had to curtail persistent ‘radical’ lobbyists.”
It’s more complicated than it seems. “I learned how many outside influences affect how lawmakers make legislation,” Richar said. “We learn in class about the types of legislation they create but not always about the work that goes into it or what causes lawmakers to think the way they do. Now, after meeting them, I have a much better understanding.”
Prepare for a workout. “The trip was exhausting!” Mitolo said. “We walked more than ten miles one day, according to my Apple watch. But it was totally worth it.”
D.C. runs on youth. “One of the staff members that I spoke to privately made a joke about how the government is really run by a bunch of 20-year-olds, and it made me laugh because it was clear that there was an element of truth to it,” Lopez-Beltran said. “They were the ones rushing around delivering mail, moving legislation, setting up tours, and more.”