Jeffrey Robb, a scholar in the Garfield Center for Public Leadership, recaps his experiences on the group’s trip to Washington DC. Led by James Thompson, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, the Garfield Center for Public Leadership at Hiram College prepares students to assume the responsibilities of public leadership by developing expertise in matters of public policy, foreign and domestic, grounded in Hiram’s traditional liberal arts education.

The last time I had been to Washington DC was my eighth grade school trip. When I was there, I distinctly remember how power and emotion radiated off of the many monuments, but I never entirely grasped what that meant. My former teachers did their best to try and educate me and my classmates on the significance of what these large buildings and sculptures represented, but very little information actually planted itself in our young minds. However, upon returning in the Fall of 2019 with the Garfield Center for Public Leadership — almost six years later — I was able to understand so much more.

Our trip began long before we got on the bus. The Garfield Scholars had several meetings in order to prepare ourselves for the upcoming event. We discussed articles and writings about the Green New Deal, which was the topic we had decided upon for our seminar. The Green New Deal represented two main ideas in relation to American life: How can we defeat Climate Change? And what is the role of government today? The Green New Deal brings these questions to the forefront of political life, or it at least has had an influence in doing so, and the scholars set out to discuss potential answers. We debated our thoughts and ideas, trying to come up with the best way to approach this discussion. However, the group had run into a problem. Typically, the scholars invite two speakers from opposing sides to give their thoughts on the topic at hand, but this time, we were unable to procure the services of someone to defend the Green New Deal. As a result, the group did something it had never done before: the Garfield Scholars actually made one of the presentations on behalf of the Green New Deal.

After a few people had volunteered for this, including myself, it was game on. There were several sessions of review and debate on the best way to approach the argument, as well as several mock presentations in order to gather feedback from unbiased students. Once we believed we were ready to make a convincing argument, it was time to head out.

After arriving in the nation’s capital, the city seemed different. We stayed in a hostel on the outskirts of the city, leaving us more apt to noticing the realistic nuances of life that you don’t typically see when you’re there for a scenic tour of the monuments. This was the first big difference for me from my eighth-grade trip: reality is tough. You can have grand monuments and memorials at the same time you have poverty and homelessness. Regardless, we spent our first night roaming, eventually making our way back to the hostel, and preparing for the activities of tomorrow.

The next day we had the chance to tour the Pentagon, the heart of our nation’s defense and protection. But before that, we had the chance to tour the 9/11 Memorial right outside the building. Likewise, we were able to talk with someone who actually worked there, which is when I learned the same lesson as before: reality is tough. He spoke about how very little in the way “defense” actually happens here and that it’s more logistical, like buying things, having meetings, and doing research. This frank realization, along with a tour of the building, shattered my perception of the importance of the Capital.

After our tour, it was time for the seminar. My colleagues and I gave our presentation, confident in our work and preparation. However, in just 40 short minutes after our briefings, we were absolutely dismantled. Ryan Bourne, an economist from the Cato Institute, captured our attention and presented the work he does for a living. Our research was good, and our presentations were solid, but we were unable to compete. Reality is tough.

Although I had learned so much in such a short amount of time, my real learning came in the late hours of the night, in a personal reflection long after the seminar. I went with a few other scholars and toured the monuments once again, finding a new perception of this place. I realized to myself, that I loved every minute of the seminar. I loved being disproven and understanding different perceptions of the same piece of information. Of course he’s going to have significant counter arguments: he quite literally does this for a living. He made me better, just as the history and mistakes of the United States have progressed our nation forward. These monuments represent something greater and they’re designed not to show off, but serve as a reminder that it’s not all about what is, it’s about what can be.

To be very direct, people will always be critical, but nonetheless, you have to persist. Learning and growing are eternal endeavors that take more than a lifetime to master, so regardless of how life is right now, where you’re at, or who you are, you can make a difference. Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and all those who have large architectural feats dedicated to them all prove this. It’s important to know that the shining city on the hill was actually built on a swamp. Life is tough, but it’s those who refused to give in that made their dreams into reality.

Although I believe Mr. Bourne had the upper hand in this seminar, I thank him for that, as the battle for knowledge and understanding is never-ending. And when I came to this conclusion, I took a long look at the monuments around me, just as I had 6 years ago, but now finally getting a grasp of what they meant and reminding myself to always strive for something greater.

by Jeffrey Robb