The five fall Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service fellows, including four Georgetown alumni, bring a variety of backgrounds to their positions including experience in public policy, political communications and journalism.
The fellows include Republican policy and political advisor Jonathan Burks (SFS ’99), former Republican Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer (COL ’81), Senior Advisor to the Human Rights Campaign Olivia Alair Dalton (COL ’06), ABC News reporter Karen Travers (COL ’00, GRD ’03) and EquisLabs co-founder Stephanie Valencia.
Fall 2019 is the GU Politics Fellows Program’s ninth semester. The program gathers professionals involved in Washington, D.C. politics and advocacy to give students insight into real-world happenings and problems. The Fellows hold weekly discussion groups as well as office hours with the goal of giving students an insider’s perspective on working in Washington and in politics more broadly.
The fellows discussed their desire to pass on what they’ve learned from their various career experiences when engaging with students in a Sept. 6 interview with The Hoya.
Why did you decide to become a GU Politics Fellow?
Burks: I think the thing for me was the opportunity to come back to a place that had been so formative in my entire approach to my career, and sort of an opportunity to come back to Georgetown and really participate in a unique program. That, being part of the McCourt School, but having so much involvement from the rest of the university as well just gives you this opportunity to really have an impact and really come back to a place that is special to me, as an alum.
Dalton: I mean so much of us came to Georgetown as undergrads and/or graduate students because of our interest in public service. Georgetown played a similarly formative experience and sparked a passion for me … I’m excited and proud to be part of an opportunity to try and create that experience for students who are here today.
We also all talked about how all of us had sort of wished there had been a Georgetown Institute of Politics when we were here in order to really make the most of what this city has to offer. So it’s really exciting that the McCourt School now has an opportunity and has given us all a platform to come back and do that.
Travers: Yeah, I’m really excited to learn from students and have a refreshment of the cynicism of Washington and just get past that and not think of the negativity because I think the students here are not going to be as negative and jaded and cynical as everybody who is east of 37th Street, hopefully. And I’m very excited to feel energized about what younger people are thinking about politics and also to help students think of different career options.
There are many options, there are many different ways of getting involved in politics and public service and there’s such a great alumni network in this town. I think you need to know how to navigate it, though. One of the things we can do here is help students tap into that.
Colyer: Yeah, and so there’s some really unique paths that kids can put together here at Georgetown. When I was here, I was economics and pre-med, which is something nobody would have let you do, but at Georgetown, talking about service, I really think that the students that I’m meeting, they’re different. They really do want to serve, they’re thinking about it and they won’t take no for an answer.
What are your discussion groups about? Why did you choose that topic?
Burks: So I’m going to be talking about politics meets policy and really exploring how political decisions or political electoral outcomes are affected by policy debates and how policy debates are driven by electoral decisions and sort of that interplay. And I think for me the reason it’s important to think about these issues and really work through them is that I think there’s a lot of disaffection generally in today’s body politic, and a lot of that is because of a disconnect between our politics and our policies. And so, trying to think through that.
Colyer: So in my session we’re going to look at strategy and we’re going to look at service. And that you’re here to serve, to make a difference and what are some of the strategies and then how do you apply them to different things, how do you apply them to your career, how do you apply them to healthcare and health policy and how does that system really work on a really personal level.
Travers: I’m going to be looking at how you cover the White House in this era of Trump and what rules he has changed, maybe permanently, and how this could be the new norm for covering an administration … The question I get asked all the time when people hear what I do is ‘What’s it really like?’ It’s exactly like you think, but a thousand times more crazy. Everything you see is exactly what it is, and then just assume way worse. So pulling back the curtain on what that’s like, and then how this toxic climate of president hates the media but he also relies so heavily on the media and there is truth to what he says about the media needing him because people are tuning into us because he drives so much coverage, but how that has spilled over into people’s cynicisms about the entire process.
Students interested in your respective fields may already be interested in talking with you, but why might other students who don’t share those interests benefit from talking with you?
Dalton: What I hope students will come talk to me about is if they have an interest in politics but aren’t sure if it’s a career for them, if they’re a really strong writer, you know, I was also a history minor. If you have these kinds of interests, come talk to us and explore what kind of career opportunities are out there.
When I was an undergrad, I thought of political communications as C.J. Cregg on the West Wing, and that’s about it. There’s such a wider world of opportunity out there, speechwriters, researchers, digital communications today. And to understand what kind of roles and opportunities there are out there in the world for your specific talents I think is something that all of can offer in our respective fields but hopefully one that students will really take advantage of.
Coyler: Students looking forward, I think you can have multiple careers and you can even have dual careers. I still do surgery and was involved in politics. You can go and create some interesting things, and this group of people has a really diverse experience in that. And you can still participate in all of these there, and so we want people to visit whether your a physics student or whatever. We want to visit with you, we want to see what you’re thinking about.
Valencia: Policy and politics impact everything, every part of our life, whether we believe it or not or want it to or not. And so I think that whether you’re a physics major or pre-med track or interested in a very specific path in politics, I think you will get something out of any number of our discussions. Either just to see a different perspective on the world and expand your worldview or to see how your particular issue gets affected by policy and politics.
GU Politics tries to bring together a diverse group from different backgrounds and ideologies. How might you model discourse even through disagreement at a time when polarization is a real issue?
Burks: I think one of the big misconceptions out there is the intensity of the disagreements on substance mean that you’re that intensely disagreeable with each other. I have a ton of friends who are on the left side of the political spectrum, and always have and hope I always will, and so I think one of the benefits of coming to campuses, hopefully showing students that in the real world you don’t have to be at each other’s throats just because you disagree with each other.
Travers: I think what we see of the disagreements, we’re seeing it through Twitter, and we’re seeing it through one minute of a video where people are just shouting at each other and the rhetoric is just so nasty in those spaces but that doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in meetings or what happens on the hill. People are passionate of course and are going to fight for their side, but I think we’re unfortunately boiling everything in policy and politics down to those fights right now and there’s so much more happening in this town.
I think especially with the advocacy work, it’s not the fight of the mechanics of legislation but it’s doing very important, significant communications to get a message out there and I don’t think people realize that that type of stuff is happening in this town. Everyone just thinks it’s gridlock on the hill and the president can’t get anything done and that’s it. There’s a lot happening in this town that should give reason for optimism but all we see — because of my industry — is focusing on the cynicism and negativity.
Valencia: And I think also just the kind of group we have here, you know the bipartisan design of the program. I mean here you have somebody, I mean I worked for Barack Obama for 10 years of my life almost and he worked for Paul Ryan, where can we model really good behavior to students in having conversation about where we can find common ground and how we can work on issues like immigration, we were starting to talk about that last night, so I think we will be able to create a sense and space among ourselves that can be modeled to the broader community that I hope we will take away from this also.
Dalton: And be a rejection of some of the toxic politics that I think we all abhor out there right now. Despite the bipartisan nature of the table, I think there are things, I won’t speak for others, but I think that we all see and abhor in the sort of politics of today and Washington.