Four Penn State Lehigh Valley students and Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Nichola Gutgold traveled from the Penn State Lehigh Valley campus in Center Valley to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 8 to participate in The Washington Center’s two-week academic seminar on the transfer of power during the Inauguration. The theme of the seminar was civil discourse, and it was an extension of Gutgold’s fall American studies course that utilized the biographies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to explore the presidential candidates’ views. Students spent the semester contemplating what it means to be an American through the lenses of the presidential candidates. The semester culminated in each student producing a video of a family member being interviewed about the theme, “What does it mean to be an American?”
This is Gutgold’s fifth time serving as a faculty leader for the Inauguration and convention programs from The Washington Center.
“This was a remarkable educational opportunity. We had a front row seat to history in Washington, D.C. where everything unfolded. Instead of simply watching the news, we got to experience it,” said Gutgold.
Students spent each morning listening and asking questions of political experts and authors, and spent part of their afternoons in small groups discussing the learning takeaways. Students also participated in daily site visits around D.C. In addition, students wrote each day and produced weekly scholarly papers based on the experience.
“Their writing helped them to reflect on the high impact learning that happened each day. It is a rigorous academic experience, and one that students remember for their entire lives because it went beyond typical classroom learning,” said Gutgold.
Stacey Hussmann, a senior business major at Penn State Lehigh Valley, participated in the program. Since she had never been to an Inauguration, she saw the opportunity to participate as an exciting way to experience D.C. during the Inauguration. For her, it was an opportunity that is a once in a lifetime chance to be a part of history. She commented on her experience after getting up at 3 a.m. and traveling to the Inauguration on Jan. 20.
“It was absolutely worth it. In addition to witnessing history, my classmates and I had lively discussion about power and democracy and the whole process. Listening to why people vote the way that they do, is essential for understanding.”
After participating in this seminar, Hussman said she feels that she has learned ways to communicate with others who may hold opposing views.
Feng Peng Wang, who is known as Leo, is a first year telecommunications major at Penn State Lehigh Valley and is from China. She wanted to participate because she is interested in politics and the presidential inauguration.
“It was a lot of fun, there were so many people and Washington, D.C. has so much history. I was attracted to the program because it was a chance to learn more about American democracy,” said Peng Wang.
Each day she found the presentations by journalists, lobbyists and political leaders interesting. Her group also worked on a budget simulation that made her realize how Congress works. On Inauguration day, she got up early and witnessed the Inauguration on the Mall.
“The American people show great spirit and patriotism. Many of them were wearing red, white and blue scarves and it was the first time I saw such big crowds in the United States.”
Kate Byrnes, a first year student majoring in rehabilitation health services at Penn State Lehigh Valley, jumped in when she heard of this opportunity.
“I promised myself when I started college that I would take advantage of things that I normally would not do. This election sparked a lot of interest in politics because it was the first time I got to vote,” said Byrnes.
U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s office provided the students with tickets to attend the Inauguration and the tickets brought them close to the festivities. State Representative Peter Schweyer, a Penn State alumnus, helped the students to obtain the tickets.
“The Inauguration changed my life and was so beautiful, I cried,” said Byrnes.
She also commented that she learned a lot about politics, which has her thinking of getting involved in politics in the future.
Michael Csencsits, a sophomore political science major at Penn State Lehigh Valley, was interested in politics because of his major and his hope to work in politics in the future.
“I have been interested in politics since 10th grade and I wanted to see what goes on behind the scenes. It was also the first presidential election that I have been able to vote, so this has special significance to me,” said Csencsits.
He said that the experience made him change some of this political views. Students watched a documentary titled “Bring it to the Table” that encourages civil political discourse and all students learned strategies to discuss political differences in productive, positive ways.
The program features internationally known speakers from government and education and also site visits to embassies, museums and the Capitol. Students visited the Australian Embassy, the Sierra Club, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Students also obtained tickets to the ongoing Congressional hearings.
Gutgold is the author of a number of books on political communication and is currently revising her 2006 book, “Paving the Way for Madam President” to include the 2008 and 2016 presidential bids of Hillary Clinton.
“The experience brought lessons from the semester alive for students and gave them a chance to experience history first hand,” Gutgold said.
The educational experience was funded in part through a grant from the Schreyer Institute of Teaching Excellence and the academic department of Penn State Lehigh Valley.