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Learning Comes Alive for Students Taking Courses, Interning in LBJ School’s Washington Program

Professor Kate Weaver explains the advantages of on-the-ground experience for those pursuing a career in the policy world

AUSTIN, Texas, August 17, 2011 – As the first class day of the fall semester approaches, students who participated in the newly-launched LBJ School of Public Affairs Washington, D.C.  program this summer are returning to Austin. Associate Professor Kate Weaver describes how living, working and learning in Washington, D.C. over the summer has provided LBJ School students with the valuable experience and connections in the nation’s policy nerve center. The LBJ School launched its inuagural Washington, D.C. program in May 2011 with two graduate courses. In addition to graduate coursework, the program includes student internships, career fairs and alumni events.

Q: What is the importance of a program in Washington, D.C. for a school like the LBJ School of Public Affairs?

Professor Kate Weaver and her Topics in Public Policy Class at the nation's capitalA: Washington, D.C. is the hub of national and global policy making. There are constant opportunities to meet and interact with people who make, implement, critique, and re-make policy. It is incredibly easy, once on the ground in D.C., to get looped into conversations with policy experts and practitioners. And in D.C., who you know is nearly as important as what you know. Networking – and putting a face to a name -- is critical to getting policy careers started.

The D.C. summer program is a great way for our students to get on the ground and kick-start connections. For example, we had numerous speakers in our seminar, each time spending 1-3 hours with our small group in intense conversation over critical policy debates. The speakers unanimously came away with the same impression: LBJ students are really smart, well trained and engaged on important issues. Many of our speakers encouraged our students to contact them later, and several even asked me to help them recruit LBJ students into their internships and other jobs. In short, having the program in D.C. has provided an incredible learning experience for our students to see the world of policy making up close, and it has enhanced the visibility of the LBJ School in a manner that will certainly benefit our ability to place our students in highly sought-after careers.

Q: What topics did you cover in your course and what were the benefits of teaching the course in the nation’s capital?

A: The course was entitled "Crisis and Change in International Organizations" and it empirically focused on the challenges currently facing the United Nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. D.C. is the natural place to teach this course. The World Bank and IMF are literally right across the street from our classroom, which gave us great opportunities for site visits and interaction with staff within the organizations. The UN is headquartered in New York, but has a strong D.C. presence. We were able to draw in fantastic speakers who worked directly with the UN on peacekeeping, refugee assistance, and UN reform. Most importantly, being in D.C. allowed us to interact directly with experts who could provide varying perspectives on the issues we were studying -- often off the record and with great candor.

For example, in our analysis of challenges and reform at the IMF and World Bank, we had speakers not only from inside the IMF and World Bank, but also from the Senate Foreign Relations Council, the Bank Information Center (a major watchdog NGO in D.C.), and the Center for Global Development (the leading think tank on international development). The students came away with an intimate understanding of the issues facing these organizations from the inside out and the outside in from staff, Congress, civil society activists and academic experts. They could not have reached this level of understanding by simply reading books.

And just being in D.C has immense advantages. In addition to events scheduled for the course, the students were able to go to talks at D.C.'s numerous think tanks and attend public events at organizations such as the World Bank. They also did primary research on their own for final papers, which included conducting interviews with organizational staff and other experts from around D.C.

Q: Many of your students also interned while taking your course, maximizing their time in D.C. Some are also blogging about their experiences on our Thinkers and Doers summer internship blog. What have your students been saying about their experiences participating in the D.C. program?

A: I think the students have had a fabulous experience living and working in D.C. I think they are amazed at how D.C. actually starts to feel like a small town, where LBJ School students took graduate courses and interned in Washington, D.C.everyone knows each other and where things you once thought happened far away actually happen right down the street. The second week of the program, the IMF chose its new Managing Director, Christine Lagarde – the first woman to ever head the IMF. This all happened literally one block from where many of our students were interning at Development Gateway, and several saw Christine Lagarde as she came out to the front of the IMF for the media blitz. One of our students even spotted President Obama having ice cream with his daughters in Georgetown.

The program also made learning come alive for the students. For example, we held one of our classes in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings room in the Dirksen Building on Capital Hill. We met with the senior aide to Senator Dick Lugar (R-Indiana), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee (FRC), about U.S. perspectives on reforming the United Nations. We had just read the transcripts of the FRC's hearing on the future of the UN. The aide, who had over a decade's experience working on the committee as the lead UN expert, gave us one of the most animated accounts of how the hearings unfolded, what's really going on in the room during these events, what the back story is on Congress-UN relations, and what it all means for the future of US-UN relations. He let the students pound him with questions for nearly two hours, and then insisted they all sit in the Senators' seats for a photo.

But if I had to pick what the students liked best, I would probably say the World Bank cafeteria. It really is the best place to eat in downtown D.C. and perhaps the only place where you can hear 20 different languages being spoken around you while you eat your choice of food from over 12 different ethic food booths.