Founded by the US Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC) in 1976 as a means to improve students’ understanding of American government and encourage careers in public service, the Congress to Campus program sends bipartisan pairs of former US Congressmen to colleges and universities to share their real-life experiences as candidates and office holders in a representative democracy.
“The Congress to Campus program provides our students with an exciting opportunity to engage our civic leaders in a direct and personal way. Students see firsthand how what they learn in the classroom applies to some of the most important public policy questions of the day,” said David Rousseau, chair of the Department of Political Science at Rockefeller College. “They get to see two people who obviously are not in the same party and yet we can still discuss issues and bring our points of view to bear,” explained Steve Kuykendall, a former Marine who served on the Armed Services Committee, the Science Committee, and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee while in the House. “We like to show them that Washington can go beyond partisanship.”
Glen Browder spent eight years in Congress. Prior to that he served as Alabama’s Secretary of State and as a state legislator. Today he’s an author and Professor Emeritus of American Democracy at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Browder pointed out that the association does not instruct members on what to say to students, nor does it pay the former representatives for participating in the program. “They just ask us to think about the mission of making these people aware that the Congress is made up of human beings and to encourage them to civic service,” said Browder.
Second year PhD student and Rockefeller College undergraduate internship coordinator, Patrick Smith, escorted the former Congressmen to the graduate tea. “The students really enjoyed having the chance to talk to them about the real world consequences of what we’re studying in theory,” Smith commented.
Rockefeller College instructors Anne Hildreth and Cecilia Ferradino’s undergraduate class posed questions to the two former representatives about a wide range of issues including: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, healthcare policy, homeland security, and prayer in schools. She was struck by how approachable Browder and Kuykendall were. “They really made an effort to get to know the students in the limited time they were there,” said Ferradino.
Brendan Pendergast, a senior political science major from Albany, engaged Browder and Kuykendall in a conversation about why Congress consistently gets low marks in public opinion polls. He was pleased the former lawmakers would come to campus to answer tough questions from students, and put a face to Congress. “I hope that students will continue to be attuned to opportunities on campus to go and listen to public officials. Paul Krugman is going to be here on Friday. Colin Powell is going to be here on Saturday. It’s great that we have this opportunity at UAlbany to have people like that come in and I hope students take advantage of it,” said Pendergast.
Congressman Browder is optimistic that his visit to Rockefeller College will inspire students to public service. “When we talk to these young people, they realize you don’t have to be born a famous person, or be rich, or be a Kennedy, or somebody like that to serve your country. I think the stories of our origins and our experiences probably convince some of them and light that spark that I can serve my country too.”
Cecilia Ferradino agrees. “I hope that the students realized that elected office, on any level is not only an honorable, but very critical calling if we as a nation want to keep enjoying the freedoms we currently have. I think that our guests showed that Congress is comprised of everyday people. I have to believe that the political seed was planted in a few students.”