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When Congress Comes Calling, UCLA Luskin Students Are All Ears Former lawmakers and their spouses share their insider view of life in leadership and legislation

By Stan Paul

Reaching across the table was good form at a luncheon discussion with a bipartisan group of former members of Congress visiting the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs on Oct. 7.

The former U.S. representatives — two Republicans and two Democrats — and their spouses held informal breakout discussions with Luskin Master of Public Policy (MPP) students and undergrads in the school’s Public Affairs minor program. UCLA Political Science graduate and undergraduate students also participated.

“Congress has come to us,” said Mark Peterson, chair of the Luskin School’s Department of Public Policy, as he introduced the guests, all members of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC). The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization is dedicated to promoting an understanding of the role of Congress and the importance of public service in the United States and abroad.

Lynn Schenck (D-CA, 1993-95) shared her experience in public service and fielded questions from students on subjects ranging from the California ballot to emerging democracies.

“Democracy is hard work,” said the UCLA alumna (BA ’67) and lawyer who served in California Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet — in his earlier term — and as deputy secretary for the state’s department of business, transportation and housing. She later became the first woman to represent San Diego in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“You have to have an interest in people,” Schenk advised the future leaders and policymakers, stressing the importance of making connections. “Start now — stay in touch with people.”

Joining Schenck and Pete Weichlein, CEO of the Former Members of Congress Association, were Bob Clement (D-TN, 1987-2003), Phil Gingrey (R-GA, 2003- 2015), and Peter Smith (R-VT, 1989-1991), all of whom had a front row seat to the inner workings of Congress and life in Washington. Conversations with the couples buzzed from the start, a wide range of talking points that included this year’s historic presidential election, the economy, social media, taxes, immigration, super PACs and the pressures of fundraising.

Ramandeep Kaur, a first-year MPP student, said she appreciated the opportunity to participate one-on-one in a discussion with a former Republican representative.

“I am definitely not a conservative Republican but this gets me out of my bubble,” said Kaur, who spoke with Gingrey and his wife, Billie.

Also part of that discussion was MPP student Estefania Zavala, who said she gained insights about the difficulty of working across party lines as well as the time and effort spent on running for re-election. “What I took away from the conversation is that the process needs to be streamlined so that our elected representatives can focus on policy and not partisan politics,” Zavala said.

Axel Sarkissian, a political science major completing the Public Affairs minor at the Luskin School, said that hearing about the day-to-day aspect of governing “from the people who did it” was an invaluable experience.

“As a student of government, I study Congress and policymaking from an academic perspective,” Sarkissian said. “Being able to hear the candid thoughts of political leaders who put these things into practice created an interesting frame of reference for my future studies.”

One topic brought up by students dominated the conversation, said Peter Smith, a former representative from Vermont and founding president of Open College at Kaplan University: “Where did all the partisanship come from at the expense of compromise? When did it change and how can we get it back?”

“I was very impressed with their preparation from their studies and their interest,” said Smith, who also served as a state senator and lieutenant governor in Vermont. “They are looking for ways to be involved in public policy that can be productive.”

UCLA Luskin Salutes the Class of 2015

UCLA Luskin celebrated the graduating class of 2015 Friday, welcoming 68 students in urban planning, 56 students in public policy and 101 students in social welfare to the ranks of its alumni.

“This is how change is made,” Dean Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., said in his opening remarks. “It starts with a small group of people who believe.”

His words resonated with the audience of faculty, family and friends, who have watched UCLA Luskin’s graduate students develop as change agents over the course of their education.

Three students addressed the crowd during the ceremony. Ana Tapia, who graduated with a master of urban and regional planning and who came to UCLA as an undocumented student after her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, spoke of how her degree encouraged her to follow her dreams. Urban planners, she said, “are people who turn dreams into reality. We not only dream and plan, but make things happen.” She urged her fellow students to “go dream, go plan and go on to do great things.”

Public Policy graduate CC Song cast her cohort as the “architects of the future,” devising and deploying policies to help build equity and create a better world. She spoke of being ready to take on life after graduate school, asking her fellow students to “find the courage to seek what makes you curious, fulfilled and challenged.”

Jennifer Chou, a graduate of UCLA Luskin’s Master of Social Welfare program, spoke about the “acceptance of not knowing” when confronted with an uncertain future. Her heartfelt speech included a rendition of a verse from the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World.”

The invited speaker, newly installed Uber public relations executive Rachel Whetstone, brought in the perspective of a group not often mentioned on Commencement day — those who “don’t dream well.” Whetstone put herself in that category, and told the story of a career that proceeded not by some overarching grand scheme but instead progressed as a series of steps from college to internships to opportunities at various organizations.

She said her experience had taught her that hard work helps make up for the absence of a dream. “Pour yourself into your job,” she said, “even if it seems like a chore.” As she acknowledged and embraced the persona of the stereotypical overworked Silicon Valley executive, she relayed a story of a visit with a psychiastrist friend, who said something that stuck with her: “Has it ever occurred to you, Rachel, that hard work is what makes you happy?” Hard work can open up new horizons, she said, and she urged the graduating students to apply themselves to their work, “because if you don’t try, you will never, ever know.”

The ceremony was a mix of pomp and celebration, with a sense of impending change on the horizon. Dean Gilliam summed up the mood best through his quotation of, as he described it, a “classic of American Cinema,” the movie Friday.

“For most people, Friday’s just the day before the weekend,” he said. “But after this Friday, the neighborhood will never be the same.”