As a Student and Professor, She Knows How Washington Can Transform Lives

Erika Cornelius Smith

Anthony Moretti interviews Erika Cornelius Smith, Nichols College

As an undergraduate student at Millikin University, Erika Smith spent a semester in Washington. She remembers how that experience transformed her life and affirmed her commitment to studying the political process.

Now, she’s back in the nation’s capital; but this time she and a faculty colleague are supervising 23 Nichols College students who are participating in The Washington Center’s Inauguration ‘17 seminar.

“I get geeky about everything in DC,” Smith joked, as she reflected on how she feels whenever she is in this city.

“Students need to get out of the bubble” that exists on every college campus, Smith said, as she explained why she sees this seminar as critical to the undergraduate experience of the students here.

That need to gain an “immersion into the real world” is heightened for the Nichols students because a majority of them who are here are studying business, Smith said. “They don’t often see the political connection to what they do,” she added.

The overarching theme to this seminar is ‘Elevating Political Discourse,” the need for which was made clear after the bitter 2016 presidential election in which too many Americans seemed determined to yell hostilities at anyone who disagreed with them rather than sitting down together to politely discuss their differences.

Smith said that political tension was evident at Nichols College, a Massachusetts private institution with about 1,200 undergraduate students. She added that after the November election a few of her colleagues had a pointed question for her.

“Are you still going to go?”

“Of course,” she told them. “Isn’t that the point of democracy, meaning to learn, listen and observe?” she said to those colleagues who wondered why she’d still want to be in Washington when Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president on Jan. 20.

As she watches her students, she’s keeping an important question about herself in mind: “How will I frame my experience once I get back home?”

Recognizing many of the Nichols students here are not studying political science or similar disciplines, Smith wondered if they’d be as engaged as students from other schools who are involved with those majors. She’s been pleasantly surprised.

“I didn’t assume my students would be that politically engaged” but they have been, she said. Some of the students are “more confident” about speaking up and asking questions, which she expected. But what she’s found especially exciting is their willingness to listen to what other people are saying.

Smith noted that her students will make a presentation to the Nichols College community in February about their experiences at the seminar.

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