For ten days in January, Peter Quesnel and Annie Viala joined over 400 students from 45 universities across the world in Washington, DC, to attend the Washington Center’s Inauguration Seminar. Quesnel and Viala, two fourth-year Campion College students, had the opportunity to supplement their education through a week of seminars, lectures and tours that culminated in witnessing “history and democracy in action”—the 57th Presidential Inauguration.
Quesnel graduated from Michael A. Riffel Catholic High School in 2007, and Viala graduated from the same school in 2008. Embarking on their post-secondary studies, both students enrolled in Campion College. For Quesnel, the decision was about following a family tradition; for Viala, it was about support.
“I was overwhelmed by coming to university; so, I thought that if there was somebody there who could have my back and knew things, I wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of university,” she said.
After taking general arts classes, both Viala and Quesnel decided to major in sociology and minor in political science.
“Sociology lends itself to opening a whole new world of imagination... looking at things through the sociological imagination, your whole perspective on life changes,” Quesnel said. “The more I do it, the more I like it. At first I took sociology just because it was an introductory class, but it has grown on me significantly to the point that I think I can make a career out of it.”
At the beginning of their final year of studying, the students received an e-mail inviting them to supplement their arts education by attending a seminar in Washington, DC. Wanting to observe the American political process first hand, travel, and build their resumes, both students jumped at the opportunity.
“This is something we could do that other people are not going to have,” said Quesnel. “You can have a degree with a major in arts, but when it comes down to it, what is going to set you apart when you actually get into the workforce? I think [the experience] was one way that we could prove ourselves as people who are genuinely interested in our fields.”
“University is so much what you make of it, and I’m trying to make it the best I can,” added Viala. “For my political science minor, I figured I could take a class on American politics or I could go and do it. This was an opportunity to go and do it.”
The University of Regina has been working with the Washington Center, a non-profit organization that provides students from around the world opportunities to work and learn in Washington since 2012. In that time, nine University of Regina students have gone on internships and seven students, including Quesnel and Viala, attended the Inauguration Seminar.
Dr. Ian Germani, the head of the Department of History and the University’s liaison with the Washington Center, thinks the center provides excellent opportunities for arts students.
“The feedback,” he said, “has been excellent.”
“It’s a really good experience in terms of connecting your academic skills with the work world, particularly for students who are interested in working for non-governmental organizations or embassies or for anything to do with international development,” he added. “It is the kind of program that suits those students who are personally motivated and want to make a difference one way or another.”
Opportunities through the Washington Center are just one example of a variety of experiential learning options available for arts students at Campion College and the University of Regina.
The Arts Work Experience Internship program and the Arts Co-operative Education program are both available to help arts students at the University of Regina gain life and work experience and help students integrate their classroom learning into the workforce. Students also have access to Campion’s Engaged Learning Program, an optional course work component that is offered in select Campion classes. The program gives students the opportunity to give back to the community while gaining practical experience.
“Sometimes students in the Faculty of Arts do not realize how many different career options they have,” said Regan Seidler, the arts co-op coordinator with the University of Regina.
“Experiential learning will help you refine those options and figure out where you want to work,” said Seidler, adding that it helps students to get to know themselves better and to gain a better sense of the career options available to them once they graduate.
“Gaining work experience shows you not only what you are good at, but also what the real-life application of what you are studying might be like when you go out to work.”
The Washington Center’s Inauguration Seminar offered the seven attending University of Regina students a variety of experiential learning opportunities. Each morning all of the attendees, a group of around 400, gathered to hear a variety of renowned political analysts, journalists, and decision makers. The students heard lectures from and posed questions to intellectuals from across the American political spectrum— from Grover Norquist, the conservative libertarian founder of Americans for Tax Reform, to Dr. Cornel West, an activist and prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“It certainly is a different political scene than here in Canada,” said Quesnel. “You find that when you get there people immediately identify themselves as Republican or Democrat; you don’t see that here. It (their political ideology) is so embedded into a lot of Americans’ identities,” said Quesnel. “And you see that each political point of view has some merit,” added Viala.
In the afternoon, students were divided into smaller groups of around twenty and visited a variety of political organizations within the city such as the German Embassy, various public relations firms, and think-tanks like the Cato Institute.
“If I had gone to Washington on my own, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to all the places that they had sent us,” said Viala, noting that the tours helped develop her understanding of the American political system.
The experience culminated with witnessing the second Obama inauguration ceremonies and parade. While many attendees rushed to the National Mall early in hopes of landing a great seat for the inauguration, Quesnel and Viala called congressmen asking for special tickets that were only available through either members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.
“It became a series of phone calls to various offices that were geographically close to Canada,” said Quesnel. Because not many Alaskan residents were set to attend, Don Young, the congressman from Alaska, was able to provide both Quesnel and Viala with “some very good tickets.”
Near the front of a crowd so immense “you could not see them all,” Quesnel and Viala saw President Obama deliver his historic and impassioned second inaugural address.
“We were so close. It was thrilling to see,” said Quesnel. “The inauguration was huge. It was the highlight of the whole trip,” added Viala.
Prior to the event, Viala was hoping to come back “jam-packed” with knowledge and experience and Quesnel was hoping to “become more knowledgeable about the world in a ‘hands-on’ manner.” Ultimately, both felt the experience surpassed their expectations.
“You sit in class and listen to the lectures and that is all good, but this experience really stands out as something extra,” said Viala. “Also, I can take little snippets from this trip and put them on my resume later to say ‘I did this,’ and ‘I know about this,’ and ‘I’ve been there.’”
“A lot of what you do as a student is theoretical. This was an experience. University is not only about the writing and the understanding. It is about actually living what you are learning. This really allowed us to do that,” added Quesnel.
Article by Noah Wernikowski
Photo: Don Hall, University of Regina Photography Department