Hilltop on the Hill, 2013 Inauguration

Twenty-one communication studies and journalism students are in Washington, D.C., in January 2013 as part of the Meadows School of the Arts’ Hilltop on the Hill program. In addition to reporting on Inaugural events, the students will visit media and government sites, and meet with political communicators, journalists and SMU alumni. The trip is led by Rita Kirk, professor of communication studies; Daniel Schill, assistant professor of communication studies, and Carolyn Barta, journalism professor. Endowed by the Bauer Foundation, the Hilltop on the Hill program also takes students studying political communication to political party conventions and the G8 Economic Summit.

Supporting the troops in D.C. and at SMU

An update from Santiago, a communications major and member of U.S. Military Veterans of SMU:

Santiago at the Vietnam Memorial

Walking through the Vietnam War Memorial was a humbling experience. Standing there looking at those names, I thought about the issues all troops faced during this time in history. Forced to leave loved ones, being drafted and trained, experiencing war, the loss of life or serious injuries, feeling remorseful for their actions in war, unknowingly dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, not being welcomed back into their country, minorities facing racisms and prejudices, sexism, homophobia, so on and so forth.

This moment weighed heavily on my heart. It was a very sobering moment. Then I thought about how wonderful that some of these issues are no more – that we have gotten better in some of these issues because of our society acknowledging that they are wrong. Many of these people were military members themselves.

Later that night James, Blake, and Marc – other students from SMU – and I went to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, “Honoring Military Heroes,” that Dr. Rita Kirk graciously acquired for us. Before the concert began, they addressed the serious issue of veteran and military suicide. An article from November 2012 in USA Today indicates that 2012 had record high suicides for military members, over 323. The speaker, who was a U.S. veteran, mentioned that it is the most pressing issue among military and veteran personal, and he mentioned what we can do to help.

Lynyrd Skynyrd honors veterans.

Basically what I got from this concert, and what I have noticed in many places, is that people do really support their troops. And in part it is because veterans have stood up and become the change they wanted to see. It was a Marine veteran who started the Student Veterans of America, “resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education and following graduation.” Such was the case for three student veterans at SMU – James, Ian and I before the fall semester 2011. We wanted student veteran representation, and we made it happen.

Learn about the U.S. Military Veterans of SMU.

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Thank you to our representatives in Washington

An update from Kathryn, a sophomore communication studies and public policy major:

Before knowing who our president was going to be for the next four years, I began hassling my local congressman, Kevin Brady of Montgomery County, Texas, for tickets to attend the inauguration. The first phone call I made to his 8th Congressional District office was one of the more intimidating things I have done. Clearly his staff is accomplished and intelligent, and the thought of how easily they could reject me was frightening. They took my name and we exchanged a few emails; then I was placed on the list as a potential for a ticket.

Coming from a very rural part of Texas, I felt a little more confidence in being a ticket recipient once election results were broadcasted. I decided to be “daring” and sent an email asking for a second ticket. A quick reply was given, but no word ever came about being granted a ticket. About a week before leaving for D.C., I received a congratulatory email because I was permitted two tickets. The email also said when and where to pick them up: before 4 p.m. on Sunday and in Kevin Brady’s office.

I clearly wasn’t thinking about how much it takes to put on an event like the inauguration when I started my trek toward Capitol Hill at 3 p.m. Sunday. We fought with traffic for thirty minutes, encountering road closure after road closure, and then decided that the only way we could make it on time would be by foot. I don’t know if anyone has ever managed to walk three miles in thirty minutes, but I can assure you that An, Sarah, and I did not become the first.

I called Congressman Brady’s office about fifteen minutes before 4 p.m., frantic that they were going to tell me I missed my chance and that was that. That isn’t what happened. They waited for us, and then when we showed up thirty minutes late, offered us desserts and beverages. Not only that, they dug for the best tickets they had and offered us more! I realized that yes, these staffers do work for a very important part of our country and are so smart, but they are also real people. I had no need to feel intimidated by them.

When I went back to the office Tuesday to say thank you for the opportunity, I was greeted by the same real people as Sunday. I got an office tour, and then we just kind of hung out talking about things – from Johnny Manziel to the man in a tree constantly screaming about abortion during the inauguration to the meeting about the budget Kevin Brady was in at that moment. It was a phenomenal experience, and on my way out the door I was asked if I would like to intern this summer. My resume is already sitting in their inbox.

It was awesome to see for myself that people in Washington are genuine and truly care about their constituents. The anxiety caused by the thought of speaking to a government office has been overcome.

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America’s remarkable tapestry

An update from Antonea, a junior majoring in communication studies and history:

On the eve of the Inauguration, we had the opportunity to see several of the monuments on the National Mall. While extraordinarily relevant to what we would experience in just hours at the Inauguration, what was most prevalent was the underlying theme of civil religion.

Unfortunately before this night, I had not been exposed to this idea until Dr. Schill explained the culmination of ideas, values and rituals that coalesced into what has been termed civil religion, or the expressions made by citizens of patriotism.

What struck me even more were the depth, sincerity, and grandeur that each monument carried – and while apart they told magnificent stories of America’s past, they also created a remarkable tapestry to reflect the inherent strength of the future of this country as well.

Particularly moving was the knowledge that as we made our own pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial and MLK Memorial; the next day, we would see the fruit of their sacrifice in another peaceful hallmark in the greatest democracy. The historical nature of this moment was not lost, and it is an experience no one on this trip will forget.

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Experiencing history

An update from Savannah, a junior majoring in communications and history:

Savannah and Mary-Ashley at the Capitol

When I decided to join this inaugural trip, I did so to be a “part of history.” However, who knows what that means?

Was I a part of the 1 million gathered to watch as the president was sworn in for a second time? Yes. But, what does it communicate? That I was a good citizen who cared about the democratic process, or was I a kid who loves losing feeling in her extremities? Well, as a delicate Southern girl who can’t handle anything below 70 degrees, I can say with assurance that it wasn’t the latter.

Instead, I stood in the middle of the Mall on January 21 to indeed be a part of history. As a double major in communications and history, people often give me an odd look when I tell them my concoction of majors. But, being here I have realized that Washington, D.C., is, in fact, the nexus of both.

Take, for example, the Capitol building. It has seen great men and women debating the matters of the day. That is still the case, but the Capitol refuses to be a shrine to the past. Instead, it is a place in which the “here and now” exists. Sitting in the House, you get the sense of urgency to tackle our next big debates: the debt, the question of gun control, and possibly immigration. But, when you walk thorough the halls you see quotes from the public servants who preceded us – like James Madison, Louis Brandeis, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and are reminded that our challenges can be overcome, much like theirs.

Here’s hoping that these next few years, people in D.C. take a page from history and decide that compromise isn’t a dirty word, instead using this new chapter for not only D.C. but for America as well.

At the Lincoln Memorial

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Inspired by alumni in D.C.

An update from Caroline, a senior communication studies major:

I’ve been bit. Since we landed on Saturday afternoon, my condition has worsened and the virus has consumed my whole being. This bug is highly contagious. It lives in the energy of the city, thrives off the ambitions and experiences of its residents and visitors, and continues to spread until you are convinced this is the place you need to be.

Before I came on this adventure, I had some inkling that living in D.C. after graduation was possibly something I wanted to do, but I passed off the feeling as a whimsical dream that would probably never come to fruition. However, as soon as I landed I quickly remembered why I wanted to be here.

This place is full of young people who have a drive that is unmatched and opportunities that are endless. The energy that swirls around is infectious and inspiring. From our first night at the ball to the Mall crawl and the Inauguration, I began to see the magic of the city. Each of these experiences exemplified different facets of D.C. However, the moments I have cherished most on this trip have been my interactions with the SMU alumni and the times I just sat back and soaked everything in.

The SMU alumni are an incredible source of inspiration. Most of the alumni we met with have not been out of SMU for more than 10 years. However, in the time they have been off the Hilltop and on the Hill they have accomplished things that I thought took decades to do. These professionals are making a difference in the world. They have jobs that affect decisions and run our country, and they make decisions that make this world a better place – be it through the power of communication, law or journalism. It was amazing to see that in May I could assume the role of an SMU alumna in D.C. and follow their path of opportunity and success.

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A sense of legacy

An update from Mary-Ashley, a junior communication studies major:

Savannah and Mary-Ashley at the National Cathedral

Over the course of this Hilltop on the Hill trip to our nation’s capital for the presidential inauguration, I have been struck by the reality of my place in the grand scheme of history.

Upon entering the National Cathedral and remembering the past presidents who walked up the same aisle as I did, I gained a measure of perspective about how important humans are capable of being. Yet, no matter how significant they were and continue to be, their lives couldn’t last forever. No matter what great feats these men accomplished, they only existed on this Earth for a short time, yet their legacies will never go away.

As I studied the photographs in an exhibition about presidents visiting the cathedral, I felt a connection to these men that I never have before. I believe it was something about being in the nation’s capital that made me feel united with past and present leaders of this country.

As morbid as it might seem, the reality of my own mortality and the mortality of the most famous men in history made me see that in many ways we are all the same. We all want to make a positive influence in our country and to do good things for our societies. Even though it sounds depressing, one day we are here in this world and the next we are not. Our time on this Earth is so short, but our legacy could stand the test of time. The question is – what are we going to do that will be worth remembering?

Professor Rita Kirk (left) with students at the National Cathedral

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So you want to work in Washington?

An update from Morgan, a sophomore business and communication studies major, and Spanish minor:

Since we stepped off the metro from Washington Reagan airport, the Hilltop on the Hill program has been a nonstop whirlwind of meetings with journalists, reporters, lobbyists, and even congressmen. Despite the different career paths of these professionals, one underlying theme remained the same: Washington, D.C., is run by people under 30.

SMU alumni and students in D.C.

For SMU students looking to move to D.C. upon graduation, this is an exciting fact. SMU prepares students exceptionally well for life in D.C., making the transition from the Hilltop to the Hill easier than one may think.

This connection is due in part to the fact that the SMU alumni chapter in D.C. is booming. Over 50 alums and current students congregated last night in a well-known Washington staple called Old Ebbitt. There, I spoke to two alumni who gave me the real scoop on how to make it in our nation’s capital.

Chrissy, who graduated less than five years ago, is now a publicist for USA Today. She could not stress enough that the most important thing in D.C. is following up with the people you meet. Sending handwritten thank-you notes gives a personal touch to things in a city that can seem impersonal at times. The contacts you make in Washington are infinitely important, and making a lasting impression could open doors later on.

Lobbyist Gregory, who attended graduate school at SMU, described to me his foolproof plan of what SMU students can do right now to essentially lock down a job in Washington after graduation.

The simple plan has only two steps:

  • Register to vote in Dallas so that you become a constituent in your congressman’s district (you will be a potential vote, therefore very important)
  • Volunteer at his or her local office, doing anything from making calls to putting up yard signs and attending parades

Tosi assured me that two years of this would enable contact with the congressman on a personal level, making the chances of getting a job in D.C. post-graduation much higher. In short, congressmen have connections, and if you show that you are hard-working and dependable, they will be much more likely to utilize their network to your advantage.

Moving to Washington, D.C., right out of college may seem like a daunting idea, but a visit to the city quells all fears. Surprisingly enough, the intimidating well-dressed 25-year-olds with their incredible careers and amazing connections were students less than three years ago. The learning curve in Washington is huge, and the network of people willing to help out a student in need is truly inspiring. Professionals describe the sense of community on the Hill like one of a college campus, a perfect segue into the real world.

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The power of communication

An update from Andrew, a communication studies major:

WOW! What a trip.

We have been busy busy busy since we landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. We have spoken to congressmen, lobbyists, staffers, and many SMU alums.

As a communications major I was blown away by how talented the people we talked to were at communicating their message. George Rogers, Pete Sessions, and Jack Fields were great speakers who kept our attention throughout our time with them. Above all the one thing I noticed most about these talented communicators was their eye contact.

George Rogers is the former chief of staff for Congressman John Boehner, the House speaker, and now is a lobbyist as of a month ago. Jack Fields is a former congressman from Texas who now is an influential consultant. Pete Sessions is the current congressman for the Dallas-area 32nd District. All of these men had extremely interesting things to say, but what impressed me the most was the way they said it. Eye contact.

In today’s world face-to-face communication is becoming less common. People spend all of their time on social media and on their phones, and rarely take the opportunity to look at and speak to the people around them. Rogers, Fields, and Sessions clearly have not hopped on that train.

I kid you not when I say that when Pete Sessions was speaking to us, he made eye contact with me several times and it felt like he was staring into my soul. His eyes were piercing but also engaging. When any of these men were speaking and made eye contact with me, I felt like I was the only person in the room. I hope one day I can be as talented of a communicator as any of these men.

SMU in D.C. Excellent trip. I’ll remember it forever.

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In with the Yo-Pro’s

An update from Madison, a junior communication studies major:

Upon arrival in Washington, D.C, I knew that the city was a different animal. The air was crisp, and you could smell ambition and perseverance on each 20-something who passed you by without even a glance at their perfect wardrobe. People know what they want and aren’t afraid to go get it.

In Dallas, you almost immediately get sucked into the bubble and create a routine consisting of work, play, rest and repeat. Dallasites get comfortable and rarely veer off to experience something different, with the exception of trying a new restaurant for brunch. The politicos and young professionals of Washington, D.C., do live in the same kind of bubble, but they are careful to not let themselves get stuck on a carousel-style of living. Each day is an opportunity for them to make a difference and try something out of their comfort zone.

These distinctions may come from the differences in the age of people living in these two cities. Once you leave the confines of the Uptown bar scene and head into downtown Dallas, you all of a sudden get a lot more grey hair and “seasoned” citizens. You are more likely to encounter a 60-year-old billionaire CEO than a young 30-something power broker. Washington, D.C, is the complete opposite. Sure, you have your grey-haired men in suits, but overall Washington, D.C., is an unexpectedly young city.

The hustle and bustle and promising prospects that one can find Washington, D.C.,  undoubtedly draw many to make the city their home. The city is filled with people who know how to work hard and play hard, too. People have passion for what they do and refuse to get stuck doing the same thing day after day. The city can be challenging, ruthless, and overwhelming, but that is just all part of its charm. And being able to walk by the Capitol on the way to work or take a nightly jog by the Washington Monument is only an added bonus.

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A bit of Tennessee in D.C.

An update from Crawford, a senior communication studies and economics major:

In addition to the Inauguration, D.C. hosts many other festivities and celebrations. However, due to the current economic situation, there were fewer balls and galas this year than there have been in the last 60 years. The cutback was meant to reduce government spending and the amount of security and law enforcement personnel needed. Luckily I was able to attend two of these balls.

After spending the morning at the Inaugural ceremony, I attended my home state ball, the Tennessee State Society Ball, at the Sphinx Club on Monday night. Despite not knowing anyone upon my arrival, I quickly bonded with my fellow statesmen. Meeting and talking with them, it was evident they loved Tennessee. I got the chance to meet with my Congressman Jim Cooper. He gave me lots of individual attention, despite me being a college student and there being other much more important people there.

It was amazing to see how many connections I shared with these people who now live in D.C. I realized it’s important not only to have pride in your country, but also in your state.

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