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D.C. program pairs students with Washington movers and shakers

USC Dornsife’s Robert Shrum shows class “How Washington Works — And Doesn’t,” firsthand

On the set of Meet the Press
The class visits the set of Meet the Press with moderator Chuck Todd, center. (Photo courtesy of Ben Cohn)

Nathaniel Haas remembers when he was on his high school debate team arguing about what caused the 2008 financial crisis, focusing on what the Federal Reserve was like under Alan Greenspan’s leadership.

This summer, he got the chance to meet the former Federal Reserve chair face-to-face. Haas is still in shock.

“I never dreamed that I would be sitting with Alan Greenspan having a substantive, unfiltered conversation about the economic collapse and America’s future in the global economy,” said Haas, who earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and economics in May from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “It was an amazing, surreal experience.”

The exchange was one of many memorable experiences Haas and his classmates had in the Maymester course “How Washington Works — And Doesn’t” led by Robert Shrum, the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics and professor of the practice of political science at USC Dornsife.

Learning about Washington

The course, which explored the processes and pressures of politics in Washington, D.C., brought a small group of USC Dornsife students to the nation’s capital to meet and speak with politicians, policy actors and members of the press.

Being in Washington, D.C., is the best possible way to learn about Washington.

Robert Shrum

“Being in Washington, D.C., is the best possible way to learn about Washington,” said Shrum, who has more than 40 years of experience as a political consultant guiding presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns.

Political science major Logan Burkhead, a senior, agreed: Reading a textbook about politics in Los Angeles just wouldn’t have the same impact, he said.

“In D.C., what we were learning about was happening all around us,” Burkhead said.

“There’s a magnitude to it. This is where everything happens. It’s invigorating.”

Students sat down with an impressive roster of Washington’s top players, including U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader; Ken Duberstein, White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Will; Tammy Haddad, former executive producer of Hardball and Larry King Live; Todd Harris, adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio; and Paul Begala, adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

Haas said that speaking with people representing the spectrum of ideologies gave him a nuanced perspective on how the government operates: It didn’t come across as hopelessly gridlocked and deeply divided along partisan lines.

The ironic thing is that I left with a sense of optimism.

Nathaniel Haas

“The ironic thing is that I left with a sense of optimism,” Haas said. “We sat down with real people that revealed that they have a deep, deep passion for serving the American people and that they are optimistic and trying to make it work.”

Students also attended a breakfast hosted by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid for his Nevada constituents, toured the White House and Capitol, and sat in on a taping of Meet the Press, where they spoke with the show’s moderator, NBC News political director Chuck Todd.

Real-world experience

Specialized research placements organized by Shrum also allowed students to work alongside journalists and political strategists or at political consulting firms.

Junior Megan Eme, a double major in political science at USC Dornsife and communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, worked at the Glover Park Group, a strategic communications and government affairs firm. The opportunity gave her on-the-job experience and helped her cement her career goal: serving private sector clients and contributing to legislation research.

It was interesting to see how I could use both of my majors — and I don’t have to run for Congress.

Megan Eme

“It was interesting to see how I could use both of my majors — and I don’t have to run for Congress,” Eme said.

Haas interned at Politico, where he assisted reporters Daniel Lippman and Mike Allen with the daily e-newsletter “Playbook.” Haas, who wrote for the Daily Trojan at USC, penned one story about a segment that aired on John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight about poultry farmers and how the publicity created by the show might end up helping farmers gain protections from chicken processors. The article made the front page of Politico’s print newspaper and was the afternoon lead on its website.

“I interviewed two congresswomen for the article and it was because I had the support and the credibility of being a reporter for Politico,” Haas said. “It was a journalism experience like no other.”

Burkhead interned with Benenson Strategy Group, a strategic research consultancy, where he is working through August on the team devoted to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Founder and CEO Joel Benenson is Clinton’s chief strategist and pollster.

“I sat in on campaign calls with Clinton’s chief strategists,” Burkhead said. “The team would create and then analyze various polls on her messaging and her potential policy perspectives.”

Haas said that the course that Shrum designed is a dream come true for any student interested in politics.

“It’s a dream come true in a sense that the people you’re meeting and talking to are simply some of the smartest, most successful political minds,” Haas said.

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D.C. program pairs students with Washington movers and shakers

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