Richard Walters, a freshman from Brandon, admits that when he decided to major in public policy leadership he dreamed of being a politician.
He has quickly learned, however, that there is more to public policy than being an elected official. “After taking my policy classes, I realize the people who are behind the scenes often have just as much influence on policy as politicians.”
Walters’ realization came from what he’s learned in classes offered through the College’s new Department of Public Policy Leadership, which launched last fall with an inaugural class of 33 students. “The assumption is that our graduates will play a role in public life, whether as the mayor of a small town or as a U.S. senator,” said Bob Haws, an associate professor of history who chairs the new department. “Of course, we want academic performance. But we also want students who are driven, ambitious and willing to make a commitment to change the world.”
It turns out that the department’s public policy leadership majors are looking for the same qualities in their peers. “I knew that all the students coming in would want to work toward great changes in our state and nation,” said Garrett Jackson, a junior from Brookhaven.
The degree program combines economics, philosophy, political science, psychology and sociology. Students practice critical-thinking skills and polish their public speaking. There is even a course in persuasion. And, through its connection with the Trent Lott Leadership Institute, the Department of Public Policy Leadership provides unique opportunities for students to talk candidly with high- ranking policy makers.
In September, Lott, a Republican who recently resigned from the U.S. Senate, brought former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle to the Oxford campus. After joining the two leaders for lunch, students walked away with a deeper understanding of policy making.
“Someone asked Sen. Daschle how to best represent your constituents,” said Abby Loden, a freshman from Fulton. “He said that you had to be yourself. That, although you represent others, ultimately your own values had to go into your decisions.”
“That type of experience is what sets the new program apart,” Haws said.
“Students interacted with both senators in a very informal setting,” he said. “The students were impressed with their candor. They both talked very frankly about some of the issues facing America today.
“When you can combine these types of experiences with a rigorous academic program, you really are preparing people for careers in public policy,” Haws said.