A group of Nichols students and faculty journeyed to Washington, D.C. for two weeks in January culminating with the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, and they came away with much more than memories and photos.
In addition to watching Trump be sworn in as president, the 23 Nichols students—led by Assistant Professor of History Erika Cornelius Smith and Psychology Professor Brian McCoy—regularly engaged with political players and media experts, and gained access to important organizations and institutions.
“Being in Washington, D.C, during the presidential inauguration was extremely impactful,” says senior Madeline Waslick. “It was amazing to feel like I was a part of history.”
The occasion also encouraged some critical thinking, adds sophomore Megan Nathanson, who came away concerned that the President’s Inauguration speech did not do enough to bridge partisan divides. Still, Nathanson notes, she appreciated the chance to witness a time-honored American tradition.
“Not everyone has the opportunity to go to an inauguration, and I am glad that I got to experience the day,” Nathanson says.
Offering the program, which ran Jan. 8-21, 2017 and granted academic credit, seemed like the perfect opportunity to build on a civic leadership movement at Nichols, Smith says.
“Students in my political science courses last fall were frustrated by the rhetoric of the presidential campaigns, and our class conversations often turned into discussions of how we can rise above partisan disagreements to create real change and address many of the critical issues through bipartisan cooperation,” she recalls.
Teaming with McCoy made for a powerful combination, Smith adds. “Psychology professors can really contribute to political science. When you ask, ‘How do we find common ground?’, there’s a psychological element,” she explains. “So we said, ‘Let’s co-teach.’”
McCoy and Smith were not alone in their efforts. As members of the two-week Washington Center Presidential Inauguration Academic Seminar, the Nichols students focused on policy issues with speakers and panelists who had competing views on the subject. Visiting speakers included national political figures, journalists, and scholars, and experts on particular issues, from the role of media to ethics.
The assembled experts covered a wide range of subjects including an election post mortem, immigration, race and equality, national security, foreign relations, the economy, and climate change. Students visited government agencies, embassies, think tanks, and other organizations around Washington, D.C. to gather various points of view on the transfer of presidential power.
“It's important to listen to and connect with people who have different beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences other than your own,” says junior Timothy Born. “Especially regarding politics to help elevate the political discourse we have in this country. This program has given us skills and lessons we’ll be carrying with us for many years to come.”
McCoy agrees that the lessons learned can far exceed the time spent in Washington, adding that the participants were challenged to elevate their critical thinking above the noise of the current political discourse and become part of a generation of leaders with the power to pursue bipartisan cooperation.
“We have bright, thoughtful, creative students on our campus who could share their insights and ideas with their local communities,” McCoy emphasizes. “If we can't attract and equip these types of energetic, talented individuals into public service, we will have serious problems in the future in our American democracy.”
This month the participants in the extraordinary Washington trip are sharing their experiences and insights with the larger Nichols community.
Nathanson is focused on future possibilities. “We all have the power to make a change within our communities, but first we must educate ourselves on the issues and start getting involved in decisions that have a major impact on our lives,” she concludes. “This was a once in a lifetime opportunity that has changed my entire view on the role I play in our government.”