UT workshop helps student politicians gain expert advice

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Political careers can be a roller coaster ride of victory and defeat, but students willing to choose this path found veteran advice at the 2012 Careers in Politics Conference on Saturday.

Students were invited to workshops with former and current members of national political campaigns, including staffers for former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The all-day event took place at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, hosted by the New Politics Forum of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation and the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation.

Events included three panels with staffers in active political careers, a networking lunch with Sherri Greenberg, the director of the Center for Politics and Governance and a keynote address by Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Straus.

More than 100 graduate students attended the conference, attracted by the ability to bring positive change to the political sphere, said Emily Einsohn, program coordinator for ASICP.

“I think young people are hungry for knowledge,” Einsohn said. “They want to know what the insider perspective is, and they want to understand what a career in politics looks like. Who better to hear that from than the active professionals?”

Students must think about the value of their time in school, and how they spend it if they choose to get into politics, former ASICP president Mary Dixson said, who moderated a panel with political consultants Kevin Burnette and Shamina Singh. She also said an only academic background was not suitable for a political or business career.

“Be careful about digging yourself in a graduate school hole — many academics have never written a resume,” Dixson said. “There’s astronauts and astronomers, and academia is full of astronomers. If you want to be an astronaut, go hang out with the astronauts.”

Singh, who is a former senior advisor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the skills involved in good political careers would carry over to every aspect of a person’s life.

“The same skill set exists in politics and campaigns as in relationships, business and everything else,” Singh said. “It’s challenging and exhausting, but it’s so rewarding.”

A good sense of business and a spirit for impacting politics as a member of society is also important, Burnette said.

“The star of the hour is the entrepreneur, especially given the economic situation we are in,” Burnette said. “It would be so great if everyone in America was a true entrepreneur.”

At a later panel, former Bill Clinton campaign member Ashley Bell and former George W. Bush campaign member Matt Mackowiak spoke on political communication and the direction of their careers.

The emergence of mass social media continues to play an important role in campaigns, Bell said.

“You can’t believe the world of contacts that come out of politics,” Bell said. “Social media is an enigma. We use social platforms to drive interest, [public relations] and marketing back to the websites where we park our information.”

The first step into the world of politics is always the most important, Mackowiak said, a 2003 UT communication alumnus.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like getting from the University of Texas to Washington,” Mackowiak said. “You have to take the first step, even though you don’t know at all where you’re going to and where you’ll end up going.”