From Campus to Congress: Training Leaders for Today and Tomorrow

Christine Hernandez, Associate Director of Women’s Leadership & Student Involvement, Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles

September 22, 2017

Somewhere in a college classroom, student union, or residence hall, future presidents, governors, and school board members are learning the skills needed to lead in a civic society. During their time in college, they’ll learn ethical decision making, critical thinking, and communication. One way that students have the opportunity to directly apply public leadership skills and democratic engagement concepts before graduation is through involvement in student government.

At the end of the year celebration for our student government association, each member received a card with the following quote by Leslie Knope from the NBC television show Parks and Recreation:

“When we worked here together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is about: small incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing,’ And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people you love.”

The quote perfectly encapsulated the year our leaders had on student government. Leaders are taught early on to understand what a constituent is and how to represent them. They hosted public meetings, university-wide budget presentations with the President, and outreach events to collect feedback from peers. They attended weekly senate meetings and monthly university committee meetings. They administered surveys, met with individual students during office hours, and they reached out to departments about student issues. Through this work, they brought student needs and concerns to light and found ways to improve the student experience.

Nearly every college campus hosts at least one student government association and the way we approach developing our leaders takes intention. It is inspiring to see students take their positions seriously. When they feel passionate for their issues and are dedicated to speaking up, students are energized. They learn resilience and patience when they realize their campaign goals shift or take longer than planned. Big goals and large-scale events give you a sense of ownership and accomplishment. Small, incremental change can make you question whether you did anything at all.

And yet, when student leaders make small, incremental change, they make a difference in the individual lives of their peers and can have lasting effects on the student body and community as a whole. Through their training and experiences, we are preparing our students to become the next president of the United States. They leave with the experience of having campaigned, led, and brought others along with them. They graduate with the skills and knowledge to be active citizens in their communities and the world.  Suddenly, holding elected office after graduation doesn’t feel impossible.

As a facilitator of Running Start’s Elect Her program, I have learned at multiple campuses how important the connection is between student government participation and future public leadership. Nationally, women are underrepresented in both student government and in the political arena.  The research shows in both cases that it’s not that women aren’t winning, it’s that they don’t run.

That’s why at Mount Saint Mary’s University, the only Catholic, women’s college in Los Angeles, it is so important to prepare students for this form of civic engagement and democratic learning. It’s why we have been the host of programs like Ready to Run® and IGNITE’s Los Angeles Young Women’s Political Leadership Summit. It’s why we have been a member of PLEN for over 30 years and provide scholarships for students to attend seminars and meet with female public policy leaders in Washington, D.C. These opportunities, paired with campus leadership development and experiences, get them one step closer to becoming a civic leader.

For Michella Mousaed, a leader on student government, the connection is clear. “My work on campus allows me to have a preview of taking on a political position and participating in senate meetings,” She’s shared with me her intent to run for state senate in the future and credits the encouragement she’s received from colleagues and mentors.  Michella is not alone in this confidence. Angel Iwuoma, another member of student government, shared, “From promoting the voice of the student body, to solving complex issues on campus, to addressing the needs of students, I know my experience will aid in my future political endeavors.” Like Michella, she has future political plans after graduation.

What excites me each day as I enter the office is the knowledge that I may be advising a future, real-world Leslie Knope – persistent, driven, and dedicated to making the world a better place through public service.

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