Hokies on the Hill program extends civics lessons to Capitol Hill
May 10, 2013
Former U.S. Sen. John Warner, the second longest serving senator in the history of Virginia, was among the distinguished guests who shared personal experiences and insights with 10 Virginia Tech undergraduates participating in the Hokies on the Hill program this spring.
“Sen. Warner gave me a lot to think about when he said that a good staffer needs to have ‘the willingness to commit to uncertainty,’” said Claire Osborn of Alexandria, Va., a sophomore majoring in political science and economics, who worked for U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt (R-VA).
During a two-hour session, Warner encouraged the students to ask questions as he provided historical perspective. When he took office in 1979, there was only one woman in the entire Senate; today one fifth of all U.S. senators are women.
He also shared the true meaning of a filibuster: 24/7 with cots brought into the Senate chamber. “You were locked in and stayed until you came to an agreement.”
His advice for those wanting to enter the world of politics? Humor and self-deprecation are essential for any successful politician, and "always use your conscience as your compass,” Warner said.
A discussion with Tom Davis, who had served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years, provided a stark account of some issues facing America: partisanship, redistricting, and campaign funding by special interest groups.
“These intimate discussions with people from across the political spectrum were among the most enjoyable parts of the Hokies on the Hill program,” Osborn said. “They helped me to better understand things that were happening on the Hill as well as what to possibly expect.”
The Hokies on the Hill program was initiated four years ago with strong support from Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger. Students earn a full semesters’ worth of academic credit for their participation in the program.
Monday through Thursday students work in offices where they do everything from conversing with constituents to drafting legislative memos to contributing research and analysis on issues big and small.
Creating a website was one of the assignments given to Liz Mylin of York, Pa., a junior majoring in political science with a national security option, while she worked at Vela Environmental (formerly The Clark Group), an environmental consulting firm specializing in government relations.
“I really didn’t think I had the sufficient skills for this but my supervisor believed in me and within two days I had created the website and was responsible for managing some of Vela’s other websites as well,” Mylin said. “This experience is something I could not have received in the classroom or from a textbook.”
Chuck Carlin of Leesburg, Va., a sophomore majoring in political science and economics, worked for U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), who earned his bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech in 1981. Carlin learned that getting an important letter signed by the entire Virginia delegation was no easy feat. “The letter had been signed once but someone signed on the wrong line so everyone had to sign a second time. Then one member changed his position and refused to sign, changing the entire dynamic of the letter,” said Carlin. “This experience showed me just how delicate the political process can be.”
Seminars with guest speakers like Warner and Davis and seminars and discussions with Virginia Tech's Director of Federal Relations Chris Yianilos, on topics like the budget deficit, sequestration, the interaction between Congress and the media, ethics and integrity in government service, and legislative strategy are scheduled on Fridays.
U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie, an author widely acclaimed for his oral histories with senators, officers of the Senate, and staff members, and Elizabeth MacDonough, the first female Parliamentarian in Senate History, provided invaluable insights to the history and workings of the Senate during a tour in the Capitol.
The students were allowed on the floor of the Senate Chamber, a privilege allowed to very few. “It was amazing for me to stand in a place where so many important decisions that shaped our country were made,” said Katie Stump of Havre de Grace, Md., a junior majoring in applied economic management and environmental science, who worked for the House Agriculture Committee.
Other students who participated in the Hokies on the Hill program:
- D’Elia Chandler of Alexandria, Va., a junior majoring in English and political science, worked for U.S. Rep. Jim Moran;
- Brett Fulcer of Leesburg, Va., a sophomore majoring in political science with national security option, worked at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress;
- Greg Giunta of Fauquier County, Va., a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, worked for Sen. Mark Warner;
- Travis Joyce of Carroll County, Va., a junior majoring in political science with legal studies option, worked at Holland and Knight;
- Beejal Ved of Burke, Va., a sophomore majoring in international studies, worked for U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly; and
- Rebecca Wescott of Haymarket, Va., a sophomore majoring in political science, worked for U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf.
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.