Home » Fall 2011Feature

Arts and Science On the Hill

by Sandy Smith No Comment

Congressional staffers share passion and Vanderbilt experiences.

Jon Boughtin in the rotunda of the Cannon Office Building. Boughtin serves as senior legislative assistant for New York Congressman Bill Owens.

For some, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Others fell into jobs and found a passion. No matter what drew them, though, College of Arts and Science graduates working as staff on Capitol Hill share one commonality: their Vanderbilt experiences equipped them well for Washington’s political world.

“I don’t know if Vanderbilt creates it, or if the same type of person is drawn to—and successful at—Vanderbilt that is successful here,” says Conrad Schatte, BA’97,  an economics and communication studies graduate who served as legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, BA’62 (Tenn.). “It’s the same sort of skills: a balance of the analytical and the personal.”

Well-Prepared

Currently, there are a dozen or more Arts and Science graduates working in Congress. Though specifics vary regarding experience, position or political party, most are legislative staffers handling a range of tasks, including monitoring legislation on specific topics (most will specialize in more than one), corresponding with constituents, communicating with the press, and serving as liaison with the elected official’s committee assignments and those who lobby and advocate on connected issues.

Some, like Jon Boughtin, BA’05, majored in political science. Now Boughtin is a senior legislative assistant for Rep. Bill Owens (N.Y.), a role he describes as “entirely policy.” Owens is a member of the Armed Services Committee and Boughtin compiles briefings on bills and assists in writing legislation.

Charlie Keller says the multitasking skills he honed at Vanderbilt prepared him to work as chief of staff for Florida Congresswoman Sandy Adams.

“Your degree matters…But a lot of people tell you that college is as much about learning how to think as what you need to know.”

—Jon Boughtin, BA’05

“Your degree matters,” Boughtin says. “But a lot of people tell you that college is as much about learning how to think as what you need to know. At Vanderbilt, there were a host of professors keyed into the local politics. Professors are willing to sit down with you and give you ideas, ‘Try interning here, look there.’”

Even without a field of study that directly correlated to her current role as health policy advisor to Alexander, a liberal arts education helped Mary-Sumpter Lapinski, BA’97. “We do a lot of writing, and I write very well because of my education,” the English and French graduate says. “When I was in college, everyone said, ‘What are you going to do with that major? Teach?’ I said, ‘You need communication skills in every industry.’ I work with language every day, writing briefing documents, legislation, and memos and editing press releases. I had good training.”

But a lot of preparation happened outside of the classroom as well. “The rigorous academic environment teaches you that you’ve got to buckle down and maintain focus,” says Charlie Keller, BA’99. A political science graduate, Keller serves as chief of staff for Rep. Sandy Adams (Fla.). “One of the things I did at Vanderbilt was spread myself thin: club track and field, varsity cross country, alcohol education program and fraternity. I still graduated on time,” Keller says. “Doing all of that you have to truly learn to balance your time, even with all the fun things there are to do in Nashville. Putting all of those into one coherent mix prepares you for the future.”

…their Vanderbilt experiences equipped them well for Washington’s political world.

Political science and public policy major Lindsay Mosshart, BA’05, says it was the mix of people she encountered that has helped most in her Washington work. “I really value the exposure I got to individuals from all parts of the country. I learned to be more patient and understanding of others’ geopolitical views and political rationale by listening to my classmates discuss politics and world events,” says Mosshart, a senior legislative assistant for Rep. Gene Green (Texas). “In my job, I work with different personalities every day, and this background constantly comes in handy by allowing me to better collaborate and coalition build across the aisle and with constituent groups.”

The Vanderbilt Influence

Located in a state capital, Vanderbilt has a natural connection for politics, with students able to engage politically early on. Additionally, while Tennessee is deep red, Nashville is not, offering opportunity for those on both sides of the political spectrum.

That is, perhaps, one reason Washington has such a strong network of Commodores. Reps. Leonard Lance, JD’77, (N.J.) and Ben Quayle, JD’02, (Ariz.) are graduates of Vanderbilt School of Law. Alexander and Rep. Steve Cohen, BA’71, (Tenn.) are Arts and Science alumni. Numerous former senators and representatives also have Vanderbilt ties, including former Vice President and Senator Al Gore and Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), who teaches at Owen.

In an environment that can radically change every two years—with Democratic staffers looking for work one cycle and Republican staffers the next—building strong connections is a valuable currency. Often young staffers land their first job working for their home-state senator or the representative from their district.

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s office has strong Vanderbilt ties—the senator himself is an Arts and Science grad. From left, alumni staffers Mary-Sumpter Lapinski, Allison Martin, former staffer and current Senate Rules Committee staff Lindsey Ward, Nick Magallanes and former staffer Conrad Schatte.

For Lindsey Ward, BA’02, Vanderbilt itself provided the opportunity to secure her first Washington job as a legislative assistant. The history major worked on Alexander’s campaign staff immediately after graduation and when he was re-elected, “Vanderbilt provided my connection to Sen. Alexander. If I didn’t have that, I seriously doubt they would have hired me,” she says. Ward now serves as professional staff for the Senate Rules Committee.

Allison Martin, BA’98, graduated with a degree in political science. She previously worked for Senators Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, both of Tennessee and who employed a large number of Vanderbilt graduates. “We all figured out that we had a shared background and that made me feel a lot more at home,” says Martin, a legislative assistant to Alexander.

Martin, Lapinski and Schatte all were in the College of Arts and Science around the same time, but didn’t know each other. “Conrad and I figured out that we were at some of the same events and had some of the same friends,” Lapinski says. Lapinski and Ward also were in the same sorority, though separated by a few years.

Shared Experiences

Having that connection to the familiar in an unfamiliar town—one known for its sometimes ruthless politics—provided comfort. “It makes it helpful that everyone looks back so fondly,” says economics/history graduate Nick Magallanes, BA’08, and another of Alexander’s legislative aides. “You have good memories and good stories to exchange of those times at Vanderbilt. I didn’t overlap with some of the others in the office, but it does provide a connection to be able to talk about the same places and experiences.”

It also can provide a powerful network of mentors. Drew Brandewie, BA’07, who now works as press secretary for a senator, found that out when searching for a job a few years ago. The communication studies graduate met with an older alumnus who brainstormed job opportunities with him, even though they hadn’t met previously. “He did it solely because I was a fellow VU grad,” Brandewie says. “A skillful networker will go a long way here, and relating to others through VU can be an excellent way to forge relationships no matter what field you’re in.”

Beyond the Hill

Scores of Vanderbilt alumni work throughout Capitol Hill and many, many more in the organizations that work with the government.

“When we need to reach out to a certain office, or an agency, it helps to have someone that you have that shared connection of Vanderbilt with,” Keller says.

It also helps that Arts and Science graduates previously in Congress work throughout Washington. Jennifer Romans, BA’03, first joined then-Senate Majority Leader Frist’s health care team after internships for a pharmaceutical company and in Frist’s office. She is currently senior director of federal affairs for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, where she uses what she learned from stints with Frist and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to work with health policy issues and entitlements. She made the switch to the private sector after the grueling health care reform battle.

In her present role, as in her Capitol Hill experience, the English and political science graduate continues to use valuable lessons learned at Vanderbilt. “Every day, my job requires me to think critically and analytically, develop creative solutions, devise political strategies, and effectively communicate ideas,” Romans says. “I am thankful that my A&S degree helped me develop these capabilities and gave me the tools necessary to lead, achieve and succeed.”

photo credit: Daniel Dubois, Hilary Schwab

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