A cohort of 28 college students from around the country came together at Mason Square in Arlington, Virginia, in October for the inaugural Schar School of Policy and Government Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Public Service Weekend. Students enjoyed three days of workshops, distinguished speakers, and learning—all in the frame of public policy communication.
Schar School organizers, who partnered with the not-for-profit PPIA — which is devoted to diversifying the future pipeline of public policy professionals — reported that the students came from 13 states and 24 universities. One of the goals of the program was to expose underrepresented students to elements of pursuing a graduate education in a policy field.
The weekend, which included lodging in a nearby hotel and a bowling outing, featured a diverse collection of distinguished guest speakers from across the media and public policy world, offering students firsthand knowledge through direct contact with industry leaders.
Speakers included senior media reporter for Axios Sara Fischer, MSNBC anchor Symone Sanders-Townsend, and PBS NewsHour White House reporter Laura Barrón-López. Through interactive sessions, crash course lectures, and direct interviews with guest speakers, participants of the conference gained practical hands-on experience engaging with public policy—and communicating it to stakeholders.
“One of the focuses of a Schar School education is policy communication,” said PPIA convenor Justin Gest, professor of policy and government at the Schar School and author of six books on policy communication, demography, and immigration. “It’s really important that our future policy makers and leaders reflect the demography of our country and have the skills to bring a broad diversity of ideas and opinions to the halls where decisions get made.”
“Throughout the weekend, Professor Gest shared valuable insights into the process of news pitching and the importance of dealing with professional rejection,” said Ilana Drake, a sophomore studying public policy and English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I was grateful to attend the Public Service Weekend at the Schar School and gain knowledge on how policy interacts with the media, all while mingling with fellow students, Mason faculty, and distinguished speakers.”
Gabriella Grabovska, a sophomore studying government and international politics at the Schar School and a participant of the PPIA weekend, noted the importance of communicating ideas to a broad diversity of stakeholders.
“With the recent growth of media power, knowing government and politics is not enough because you have to communicate your knowledge and ideas to the people that make decisions,” she said. “The PPIA weekend improved my skills of writing and speaking communication and was just a very inspirational and practical experience.”
Throughout the weekend, participants had full access to numerous Schar School faculty in addition to Gest, including Associate Dean of Student and Academic Affairs Bonnie Stabile, Director of the Schar School’s Master’s in International Security Degree program and Center of Security Policy Studies Ellen Laipson, along with Associate Professors Michael Fauntroy and Jennifer N. Victor and Assistant Professor Meghan Garrity.
Students engaged in dynamic workshops, writing policy memos and op-eds while receiving guidance, insights, and mentorship from the faculty and guests. Students also engaged in mock broadcast interviews with Margaret Talev, outgoing managing editor at Axios and a CNN political analyst.
“Participating in the Schar School’s Public Service Weekend was truly an honor,” said Emmanuella Osei, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The lectures provided by Dr. Gest were extremely informative and engaging. I even had the opportunity to share an excerpt of my op-ed and receive feedback from Symone Sanders-Townsend, host of Symone on MSNBC.”
Beyond meeting with Sanders-Townsend, who many students noted as a highlight of the weekend, students also met with Axios’ Fischer, who offered insights in the changing dynamics of the media world, and NewsHour’s Barrón-López, who described the fast-paced and hectic news environments the White House operates within.
“After presenting my op-ed to the conference, the distinguished guests, and faculty, along with the students, gave me useful ideas to truncate and implement stronger direction in my rhetoric,” said Blaine Greene II, who attends St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “As an English major with a political science minor, I sometimes feel like an idealistic rube or a country bumpkin, yet I was unbelievably proud to be in the presence of this group of the world's greatest students.”
“The program is mutually beneficial to students and faculty because each get a head start at building relationships that will serve them throughout a two-year program,” said Professor Victor, who participated in the mentorship lunch-table segment, a series of small, casual discussions with Schar School faculty providing insights into the public policy world.
“Being a Schar [School] student means being well-connected to different political resources, amazing faculty, outside opportunities, and programs like PPIA,” Grabovska said. “My advice would be to stay in touch with connections that you make within [the Schar School]. If you are in touch with your academic advisor, they might send you some cool classes or workshops. If you stay in touch with a Schar [School] student, who knows, maybe one day they will become the president?”
When asked about what advice to give to students interested in the public policy field, Gest noted the exemplary pursuit of lifelong learning exhibited by the participants of the weekend.
“In this economy and the policy sector, professionals can never stop learning, or they risk becoming less effective and obsolete,” he said. “Always continue to expose yourself to new knowledge, new colleagues, and new information and ideas.”