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Crash Course in Politics

A student providing testimony to mock legislators.
A student providing testimony to mock legislators in the Just Do It! Turning Your Passion into Policy course.

Just Do It! Courses Provide Students with the Fundamentals of Political Engagement and the Mentorship to Launch Careers
By Anne Hillel BSBA’18, Marketing

The Washington University campus is buzzing with political activity in 2016 as we approach the Presidential Debate held on campus on October 9 followed by the November election. Every semester, regardless of what’s on the ballot, the Gephardt Institute – in partnership with the Department of Political Science – offers the Just Do It! courses to provide an early framework for students to leverage the political process to promote positive social change. Alumni from the courses, citing its lasting influence, have gone on to serve in roles in political campaigns, public policy, and for elected officials.

In Just Do It! Running for Political Office, a one-credit course, students are challenged with running their own mock campaigns, with groups of four acting as candidate, campaign manager, communications director or scheduler. The class may be a mock campaign exercise, but the topics discussed and guest speakers present are real and engaging, thanks to the dialogue and skill-building facilitated by Professor Tom J. Irwin, a longstanding member of the Gephardt Institute National Council.

As the Executive Director of Civic Progress – a St. Louis civic organization – and a former senior staffer to the mayors of St. Louis and Boston, Professor Irwin brings decades of political experience to educating students on the nuances of political campaigns and policy-making. He frequently brings in guest speakers who are active politicians and government employees. The course is a modest time commitment: it meets once a week for one hour, but the real value lies in the stimulating discussions, ideas, and strategies students consider as they develop their campaigns. Professor Irwin challenges students to consider opposing sides of every campaign: those with Democrat-leaning views are assigned to run a mock Republican campaign and the opposite is true of those with Republican-leaning ideals.

In addition to Running for Political Office, the institute offers Just Do It! Turning Your Passion into Policy in the spring semester, where undergraduates are given the opportunity to learn practical skills for tracking legislation, building coalitions, fostering advocacy skills, and more. Not only do these courses allow students to run a mock campaign and advocate for their policy goals, but students also gain an invaluable connection in Professor Irwin. He is knowledgeable, entertaining, and often helps students secure jobs and internships after the class has ended.

One student who has been directly helped by Professor Irwin is political science major Kevin Deutsch who took the course in fall 2014. Professor Irwin introduced Kevin to a top fundraiser from the Jeb Bush presidential campaign who then secured him a position with its New Hampshire field office. Following that campaign’s end, Kevin is now a regional field director for the North Carolina Republican Party. As both a former student and teaching assistant for Professor Irwin, Kevin notes:

“Tom is one of the most interesting people at WashU and one of the finest I met in St. Louis throughout my three years there. Every student should want to take his class.”

Other alumni of the course have held internships and jobs with St. Louis County Planning, the City of St. Louis, former Congressman Russ Carnahan’s office, the City of New York, DC consulting firms such as New Partners, and more. The Just Do It! series is just one of the many Community Engaged Courses courses offered: Check out more courses here.