Washington Experience course offers in-person look at political communications

By Beth Hatcher

A group of UNC Hussman students visited Washington, D.C., over fall break, getting a close look at the political communications industry thanks to an itinerary packed with visits with alumni and other communications professionals working in the nation’s capital.

The trip was part of the “MEJO 437: Washington Experience” course, created in 2015 and taught by Edgar Thomas Cato Distinguished Professor Daniel Kreiss as a way to serve students interested in political media careers, from advocacy to strategic communications to reporting.

“Trips like these are important because they allow students to really get a feel for what their lives would be like if they lived in a place like Washington,” Kreiss said. “They get a sense for the city’s pace of life, its energy. Also, by interacting with the alumni and other professionals, students can ask questions of people actually doing these jobs and get a sense of what positions might suit them, and just as importantly, what might not be a good fit.”

Students on the trip met with media professionals working on Capitol Hill and in digital communications, social media, public affairs and journalism. They met with alumni including recent graduates Vanessa Schoning ’20, Amelia Fox ’20 and Kelsey Mason ’18  — all current staffers for members of Congress.  

Students also met with a host of other professionals such as Elana Ross, deputy communications director for Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Carrie Adams, who is part of the politics and government outreach team at Facebook. The trip’s many meetings provided student Kelli Rainer ’23 with new mentors. 

“By physically going to D.C. and seeing the buildings where these careers exist, I was able to genuinely immerse myself in the Washington world,” Rainer said. “I was able to network with so many successful alumni and make important connections that not only shaped my aspirations and hopeful career path, but also offered me guidance on how best to achieve everything I want.”

Kyle Ingram ’23 said the time in Washington reaffirmed his desire to be a D.C. journalist. 

“My favorite part of the Washington Experience trip was speaking to an Axios reporter during our alumni reception. Her name is Caitlin Owens, and she covers healthcare for Axios,” Ingram said. “She gave me amazing advice about getting into the journalism industry and convinced me to try to move to D.C. after graduation.”

Owens has also made herself available to students virtually, lending her professional insights as part of a journalism-focused career trek in September 2021 organized by the school’s career services team.

“When an anonymous donor made a gift to be used for a school priority, we focused on creating this experience so students can understand both journalism and the role of advocacy in the nation’s capital in the changing world of political communication on the digital frontier,” said Susan King, dean of the school. “One great outcome of this course is that our students from different perspectives and political thought can learn from each other and have civil conversations about public life.”

The students on the trip are well served by the connections they make with each other, said Cara Schumann ’17, one of the alumni who spoke with students during the trip.

“Many of the connections I made while studying at Carolina were so important when I started out in my career. I had friends who were also applying to jobs, people to look over my cover letter, friends that shared their connections,” said Schumann, now a UNC Hussman master’s student who also serves as a digital adviser for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). “I also found friends that were a support network as a junior staffer, both on my side and across the aisle. Nothing is more important than people who you can be honest with and who can be honest with you, and I found so many of those friends back in 2016 as a student in Dr. Kreiss’ class.”

Susan King, dean of the school, spoke to the power of the school’s political communications program. “We want out students to grow into leaders in civil public and political discourse,” she said. “Leading scholars like Daniel Kreiss and our political communications courses, immersive experiences and extensive, supportive alumni network can really nurture the value of understanding the issues and debating them with respect for diversity of political thought.”

Alumni who have taken part in the trip as students gravitate to the opportunity to give back to current Hussman students.

“As a former student in the Washington Experience class, it is an honor to be asked to speak to its current cohort of students. My trip to Washington, D.C., as a student was so impactful, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to pay it forward,” said Mason, part of the educational professional staff with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). “Having the ability to meet others in potential fields of interest is a vital aspect of building a strong network. And that strong network is essential to students’ internship and job search.”

Kreiss noted that students on the trip ran the gamut, not only in career interests but in their certainty of working in Washington. He knows not all of them will end up in D.C. However, the value of the experience, and the entire “MEJO 437” course, is universal for Hussman students, Kreiss said.

“Journalism and communications are in a very core way about public life,” Kreiss said. “Whatever field our students choose to pursue, they will need to have an understanding of the political currents that will shape the context of their careers. This course, and this trip, can help them do that. I feel extremely privileged as a faculty member that I get to take part in these immersive experiences that give students a real-world view of where their UNC Hussman education can take them.”