by Elizabeth Pulanco
After the 2016 presidential election, Washington D.C. returned to the spotlight in January. A group of 12 Winona State University students attended an academic seminar hosted by the Washington Center focused on elevating political discourse. Colleges and universities from all over the U.S. participated in the seminar, which was held from Jan. 8 to 21.
In addition to the seminar, students were able to meet alumni living the area, visit the various museums and landmarks and attend the presidential inauguration.
The inauguration took place near the end of their time in Washington. According to Winona State senior Grace Johnson and junior Christina Melecio, it was a memorable experience.
Johnson had a mixed response to the inauguration. She said she wanted to attend the Women’s March on following day, but was unable to because her flight was leaving early. She discussed how she wore her pink hat at the inauguration to show support for the movement.
“Pink was the main color for standing up for equality that weekend,” Johnson said. “I got called out and yelled at by other Trump supporters that were there. They yelled at the police to try and get me to leave and harassed me until my friend just told me to take off the hat, because it was not worth my security.”
Even though Johnson experienced conflicts at the inauguration, she said was still able to observe the event and even made a friend.
Johnson mentioned a woman from Texas who was at the inauguration with her husband and grandchildren. According to Johnson, this woman was the only individual who was willing to have a positive conversation with her.
Johnson said. “Any time someone yelled at us or challenged us, she would be like ‘Stop messing with my liberal friends.’ She gave us big hugs at the end when everyone was leaving.”
Similar to Johnson’s experience, Melecio said she was conflicted with what she heard during the inauguration.
“I was surrounded by people who used horrible rhetoric,” Melecio said. “They were saying some very nasty things about Mexicans, which I am, so that was difficult to digest.”
Despite the behavior of some attendees, Melecio said she was still lucky to view a peaceful transition of power.
“Regardless of whether I liked the candidate or not, in the United States we get to vote for someone, and they get picked. And we don’t have a war in response,” Melecio said.
The situation the students faced with the individuals who had opinions that conflicted with their own was the main focus of the Washington Center’s seminar.
Johnson said she believes the information she learned was applicable to her studies as a political science major.
“In our political science program, conversations are pretty much one-sided. There is not a lot of discourse in our conversations,” Johnson said. “Whether in the political science program, or just having discussions about policy, having an idea of what the other side thinks and being willing to play devil’s advocate, will help us when we get into the field.”
Melecio said the seminar caused her to evaluate different perspectives.
“We had assignments every single day where we had to write a single page, single spaced essay about a different perspective that we learned about,” Melecio said.
Winona State junior Adam Thompson, a social studies education major, is planning on using the information he learned while he is teaching, and said finds it beneficial for discussions on campus.
“The ability to host discussions and teach people about your opinions and feelings will be extremely valuable to me as a social studies teacher while also teaching my students how to have these discussions,” Thompson said.
Kara Lindaman, a political science professor who organized the trip, said she believes Winona State students could benefit greatly from the seminar.
“I think why we get into this business is for two core commitments to higher education: educating for personal and social responsibility, and taking note of the perspectives of others,” Lindaman said. “It’s really hard to emulate that in a classroom full of similar majors, minds and backgrounds.”
Sociology professor Jennifer Chernega was a chaperone for the trip and said how the trip to Washington was a useful out -of – classroom experience.
“These types of experiences help students connect their classroom work to the world outside and see that the folks that they read about and see on TV are real people,” Chernega said.
Thompson did not attend the inauguration, but did view the several museums in Washington like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“As an African American, seeing that history is extremely important. You immediately think of political discourse when you see things on the civil rights movement and the fight for abolition,” Thompson said. “At the Holocaust Museum, there were two survivors from Auschwitz and Dachau that we got the opportunity to speak to, which was an experience that will stick with me for a while.”
Along with the museums, walked through the Senate Office Buildings. While in these buildings, they met their local representatives and Minnesota State Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
The students went to the Brazilian Embassy and discussed climate change and the status of Brazil in a new presidential administration with research ambassador Frank Neto.
Besides meeting different representatives and political figures, some of the students had the chance to make friends. According to the Washington Center, 60 universities and 320 students participated in the seminar.
“Meeting new people was one of my favorite parts of the trip,” Melecio said. “I have new friends from Connecticut, Florida, Arkansas and New York.”
Students said they felt that traveling to Washington not only gave them a different perspective on their nation’s capitol, but it also gave them a chance to think about their future.
“I think we kind of get stuck in this hopeless feeling of being in college forever, and going to D.C. showed us that there is more we can do,” Johnson said. “We had the opportunity to talk with people from different kinds of fields of work in D.C. The opportunities we got there are not usually found here in Winona.”
Many of the students who traveled to Washington are a part of the political science program or are members of Winona State’s Student Senate, and taking this trip reignited their passion for public service, especially for Melecio
“We went to learn, and I think we learned a lot about elevating political discourse, but we also learned a lot about ourselves,” Melecio said.” I think people started seeing different career paths or futures for themselves while being there. It was a once and a lifetime kind of opportunity.”