The classroom for the day was the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, across the white marble hall from the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The five “professors” were not academics but active practitioners in legislative affairs, representing federal agencies, congressional offices, and lobbying firms.
And when the bell rang, as it did several times during the four-hour session, it wasn’t to end class but to alert members of Congress in the building to attend a vote that had been called to the floor.
The “Capitol Hill Day” event was an off-site meeting of about 30 students in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The students were accompanied by Schar School professors Priscilla M. Regan and Connie L. McNeely, who arranged the morning’s series of speakers.
The class visit by MPA students to the symbolic seat of federal power has been taking place more than 15 years, Regan said, and is a requirement for the MPA degree. The idea, she said, is to “connect students with speakers and hear them say what they’ve been reading.”
The Capitol Hill event takes advantage of the Schar School’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and of the relationships with policy makers and influencers. “You couldn’t do this if you were in the middle of Kansas,” Regan said.
Students in her public policy process class will write a paper on what they hear during the Capitol Hill visit.
The October 12 session included presentations by Nancy Kingsbury, managing director of applied research and methods at the Government Accounting Office; longtime lobbyist Theo Sitther, director of the peacebuilding policy program of the Friends Committee on National Legislation; Damian Murphy, a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Lauren Inouye, vice president of the Council of Graduate Schools; and James Walkinshaw, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, the Virginia Democrat who helps book the Rayburn room for the Schar School program.
“I’m always really excited to come down to the Hill,” said Master of Public Administration candidate Samantha Brien, a restaurant liaison specialist for the Arlington County Police Department (she’s also studying for an MPA concentration in administration of justice). The new setting for the class, the Massachusetts native added, “keeps me engaged.”
For some, it was a rare trip to the seat of the federal government. Master’s candidate Jennifer Prioleau, who lives in Richmond, Va., and works as an administrative assistant with the Virginia Board of Accountancy, said she had not been to the Capitol building “in at least five years. This is my first time in the Rayburn building.
“It’s great to come here and see what’s actually going on,” she said. “I’m a visual learner. In class, I’m hearing about these [policy issues] but I can’t really visualize it. Being here helps me see how it works.”
But for at least one, coming to the Hill wasn’t new—but the learning session was still effective.
“I used to work in politics and coming to the Hill was the bane of my existence,” said master’s candidate Raleigh Dierlam, a development research associate at the Mercatus Center at George Mason. “But it’s nice to come here for a different setting, to see the hustle, and hear different perspectives.”