Working with former U.S. Rep Patricia Schroeder, students travel to Washington, D.C., to fashion practical solutions to complicated issues.
Somewhere beyond the screech of political discord and the clash of internet commentary are spaces where groups form to create change and craft policy.
An honors class on equity issues in legislation—led by former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder and Associate Professor of Philosophy Ryan Musgrave—offers students a peek at some of those places. Moreover, it challenges them to engage the political system to address the inequities they discover through their own research.
Schroeder, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years and was a leading advocate for the Family and Medical Leave Act, said one of her goals in the class is to show that politics can make communities better, despite angry rhetoric that often drowns out the issues.
“I want them to be interested in public service,” Schroeder says. “But I can’t blame them for hesitating. They haven’t heard anything good about it. But not everybody in politics is a certified loon.”
That’s one of the reasons that about a dozen students in Equity Issues in U.S. Legislation spent spring break on a field study in Washington, D.C. They learned about some of the people and places mentioned in the course and saw that the gears of government don’t always squeal as they go round. “We saw a Senate vote,” Musgrave says. “It was the quiet, seemingly boring daily grind of government.”
While in the nation’s capital, students also met with Rollins alumni and began some of their first steps into professional networking. Alumni helped provide information and insight into their class projects. The Rollins Alumni Association provided some scholarships for the trip, and the Office of Alumni Relations hosted the networking event.
Indeed, Scott Novak ’16 made a contact with David Bagby ’06, who is legislative director for U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. That eventually led to Novak applying for and getting an internship this summer with Grayson's office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The field study in Washington, D.C. provided a lot of information for the students to process. “It was eye opening,” says Huda Saleh ’15, a biochemistry major, who is working on a project on equity in health care. While she was inspired by some of the historic sites, she was also surprised by the widespread problem of homelessness in the nation’s capital. “I did not know the extent.”
Her sister, Ayeh Saleh ’14, also a biochemistry major, said the experience caused them to realize that the problems of access to health care have complexities that can’t be solved with money alone. “It taught us to take politics into account. It influenced us to analyze it closer.”
The Rollins group also looked at political displays at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, which honors the history of women’s progress toward equality. Among the items on display was Schroeder’s campaign button from her 1987 run for president.
The sisters, who are from Palmetto, Florida, also found interesting parallels in the social problems they learned about and Schroeder’s personal and political struggles. In 1964, Schroeder was one of only 15 women in a graduating class of more than 500 at Harvard Law School. In 1973, she became the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado. And she has been outspoken about the barriers she faced.
“She didn’t idealize the process,” Ayeh says.
It’s that political process, however, that drew Kristyn Gorton ’17 to the class. With an ongoing interest in animal rights, Gorton wanted to learn how to engage a political system that Schroeder calls overburdened with constant fundraising for elections.
Gorton wants to educate people about “the welfare of animals, the production of animals for human consumption, their exploitation in the entertainment industry, and vivisection.” The course’s interdisciplinary approach has helped her sharpen her understanding of the topic and of organizing for a cause. “It gives me an opportunity to see my issue through a political and pragmatic lens,” Gorton says. “It reflects Rollins’ practical approach to the liberal arts.”
Bonnie Pierson ’17, who also is majoring in biochemistry, said she enjoyed the chance to research a complex, social issue such as racial and gender equity in the justice system. And the perspective of a former lawmaker who spent more than two decades in government fascinated her. “I liked seeing it in a different way,” says Pierson, who is from Pittsburgh. “A problem in the lab either works or not. And if not, then you go back and fix it.”
However, a problem that contains social, cultural, psychological, and political complications forced her to think in different ways.
Musgrave said students need to understand that politics can be messy, many-sided and money-obsessed, yet still form a path to addressing an issue. “You want them to see that the political system is accessible,” Schroeder says. “You fear that they will protest about an issue, but not take it to the policymakers because they think, ‘What good would it do?’”
Gorton is already thinking about her next steps in her animal welfare project. “I’m trying to channel it into productive action.” She has started a group called the Rollins Order for Animal Rights, or ROAR.
Huda Saleh liked that acronym and asked, “Are you going to meet in the classroom?” Before Gorton could finish the answer, Ayeh Saleh, chimed in, “We are so going!”