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Green Capitol

MSU's proximity to the state capital has helped churn out high numbers of state lawmakers

August 3, 2011
	<p>Lansing residents Keith Scott and Keith Scott Jr., 6, enjoy a ride Tuesday afternoon at the ingham County Fair.</p>

Lansing residents Keith Scott and Keith Scott Jr., 6, enjoy a ride Tuesday afternoon at the ingham County Fair.

Photo by Matt Hallowell | The State News

Although she didn’t always know she wanted to hold a government office, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, always knew she wanted to be a Spartan.

At MSU, she enjoyed everything from the social life to the football games to the class work.

“I really kind of hit my stride at MSU — in terms of academics,” Whitmer said. “And I made a lot of lifelong friendships.”

Whitmer isn’t the only state lawmaker to study in East Lansing.

With about 30 incumbent state legislators having completed programs at MSU, the university currently has the most graduates among Michigan lawmakers in office.

Such a network in Lansing is beneficial for Spartans past and present, Whitmer said.

“It’s nice to have fellow alumni or even just fans — colleagues who are fans of the university or have kids in the university — (at the Capitol),” she said. “That camaraderie helps to make the case for things for MSU.”

Statistically speaking, MSU is bound to graduate more state lawmakers than other Michigan universities, said Benjamin Kleinerman, an assistant professor of constitutional democracy.

“Part of the answer is that we’re the biggest university in the state,” he said.

But the fact the school graduated so many legislators currently in office encourages students and employees that its colleges and programs — such as public-affairs-focused James Madison College and the university’s political science program — are some of the best in the state, international relations and Russian senior Andrew Martini said.

“That reinforces people’s belief in James Madison and Michigan State as a public policy place,” he said. “If the university is getting people employed, it’s done its job.”

Student services
MSU has a tradition of working to serve the community, said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., another MSU alumna.

“There’s certainly an ethic of public service, and I think it attracts people that share those same values,” she said.

Christopher Schotten, an economics and political theory and constitutional democracy senior, said the school and its students continue to work for the common good.

“MSU hasn’t abandoned that mission at all,” he said. “I think that’s reflected a lot in students who decide to go here as well as students who graduate.”

If the opportunity ever arose, Schotten said he likely would run for public office. And he knows many students, in MSU colleges and departments ranging from James Madison to sociology, who also plan to seek election one day.

MSU offers students exposure not only to politics but also to political issues — including economics, agriculture and natural resources.

“I think we have some really good programs that focus on state issues — not so much politics but state issues in Michigan,” said Sherman Garnett, dean of James Madison.

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who also is an MSU alumnus, said this diversity is what makes the university so excellent at producing superior public servants.

The state Legislature includes individuals from all walks of life, Jones said. Before taking office, they worked as successful nurses, farmers, accountants, teachers, doctors and more.

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“I think that’s very important to get other expertise before you go into an election — to have some life experience,” he said.

Political prowess
Rob Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review, a company that publishes various college guides, credits MSU as well as Albion College, Calvin College, Kalamazoo College and the University of Michigan with having the best policy programs in the state.

When it comes to the field of public service, Michigan’s top schools have strong faculty and curriculum, but they also have a common thread of encouraging experiential learning, Franek said.

With a weak economy, young people increasingly are struggling to find a job after graduation. But increases in tuition — and therefore student debt — as well as the rise of the cost of living makes securing a job more important than ever, Franek said.

Students are seeking an education that will provide such job security, and schools now recognize the need to provide students with on-the-job experience to learn skills that will help ensure they can find work.

“To have that outside of the classroom experience so they can move on (in their careers),” Franek said.

Unlike Michigan schools located hours from Lansing, MSU is located just minutes from the Capitol.

And this puts the university — and its students who are looking to work in politics — at an advantage, Martini said.

The variety of activities students are encouraged to take part in also makes MSU a good school for future politicians, Schotten said.

“I run into a lot of very passionate student leaders on campus who are making a big difference and hope to continue to make a difference in their community,” he said.

Students have the chance to be a part of MSU’s undergraduate student government ASMSU, MSU College Democrats and MSU College Republicans, among other organizations.

“Getting involved in student government and such gets you a feeling of getting involved in government,” Kleinerman said.

A capital idea
Schotten took advantage of the university’s East Lansing location this summer and currently works as an intern in the office of state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville.

Almost every person Schotten has met who now is working at the Capitol, including legislators, chiefs of staff and communications directors, has taken part in a similar Lansing internship, he said.

“(They) are usually individuals who have had unpaid internships, either with a legislator’s office or with some office downtown,” Schotten said.

Because James Madison requires students to complete an internship, Martini also currently works at the Capitol, in the office of House Minority Leader Richard Hammel, D-Mt. Morris Twp.

Martini said such experiential learning can have a significant impact.

“Once you get the experience, for some people, the political experience is kind of like crack,” he said. “I know a lot of people get addicted to that and have a passion.”

Whitmer’s internship with then-House Speaker Curtis Hertel, D-Detroit, while she was a student at MSU made her realize she wanted to work in state government.

“I was so fascinated,” she said. “It plays such an important role in everyone’s lives that I really got interested in it.”

Whitmer said the university’s proximity to the state capital is beneficial to more than just students interested in public service. Everyone should look to have a Capitol experience, she said.

“So few people really understand how state government works,”
Whitmer said. “Whether you want to use that education to translate into the private sector or to public service, I think it’s an education that really adds to someone’s résumé and world view — it will benefit (you) no matter what path (you) take.”


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