by Alana J. Mauger
Each semester, Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) students enrolled in American National Government (POL 124) and American State and Local Government (POL 125) courses are afforded a unique glimpse into real-world politics.
Launched in fall 2012, MCCC Assistant Professor of Political Science Jodi Empol-Schwartz and Executive Director of Government Relations Peggy Lee-Clark developed a Legislator in Residence program in an effort to make the political process come to life for students.
The program brings Pennsylvania legislators and their staff members into six classes each semester to explain, from a first-person perspective, the concepts and information students read in their textbooks. The specific topics vary each semester; some topics from the fall included committee work, being a newly-elected legislator, working with constituents, and the difference between campaigning and governing, to name a few.
Prior to the guest lectures, students are required to research each legislator and develop questions.
“The students spend time outside of the classroom researching the guest speakers so that they can engage in a well-rounded discussion. The legislators do their homework, too; they take the role of instructor seriously and come well prepared,” explained Empol-Schwartz.
“The students can’t ask anything that can be found on the legislators’ websites or in their bios. I want them to research actual legislation. I encourage them to follow the legislators on Twitter and Facebook, and I provide them with links to tools like the General Assembly bill search,” she added.
At the end of the series, Empol-Schwartz’s students are required to select three legislators and their legislative staff to analyze in depth, and then they are asked to select one that embodies “a servant of the people.”
The program has prompted a number of students to seek internships in legislative offices, one of whom was later hired as staff.
“The program provides students with a unique perspective of state and local politics that, unless you’re in Harrisburg, you can’t experience,” shared Empol-Schwartz. “The discussions are intimate, respectful and genuine. The students can see that legislators do understand the issues impacting their communities and do care about the people. This program enables students to gain direct access to lawmakers without competing with outside interest groups.”
For the first time this spring, the community is invited to join MCCC students for a legislative panel discussion on Jan. 22 at MCCC’s Central Campus in Blue Bell, Pa. MCCC President Dr. Karen Stout will facilitate the discussion between Pennsylvania Representatives Madeline Dean, Kate Harper and Marcy Toepel, who will share their experiences as female members of the state Legislature.
Going forward, Empol-Schwartz hopes that the Legislator in Residence initiative can continue to extend its reach political science classes.
“I would love to get legislators into every classroom – to make it a successful college-wide program,” she shared.