Each year, the Highland Capital Management Tower Scholars take a trip to Washington, D.C. as part of their Policy Seminar course work. Two Scholars, Marina Leventis ’21 and Bibiana Schindler ’21 told us about their experience during the trip and the memories they made that will last them a lifetime.
On a Tuesday, a day usually reserved for morning classes in Dallas Hall and afternoon study sessions in Fondren Library, our class was standing on the Speaker’s Balcony in the United States Capitol Building. We looked out at the Washington Monument, smiling and catching our breath. We had a packed morning of meetings that day, discussing U.S.-Saudi relations with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and chatting over Middle Eastern politics at the Members’ Private Dining Room with a former Congresswoman. It felt like we had fast-forwarded fifteen years into the future, living out the careers many of us hope to have one day. In reality, this was all part of an SMU program to prepare us for careers in Public Policy and International Affairs.
The Washington, D.C. trip is one aspect of the Tower Scholars Program, which is a selective, multidisciplinary minor that helps cohorts of students gain practical experience in policy. The students are from different backgrounds and have varying policy interests. The diverse perspectives allow the cohort to learn almost as much from each other as they do from their professors. In the spring of junior year, the scholars a practical seminar course at the end of which they propose policy recommendations to a client on a specific policy area. This year, we debated U.S.-Saudi relations with our client, the Middle East Institute, a think-tank in D.C. that focuses on raising awareness and understanding of the Middle East among US citizens.
A 360-degree view on a particular topic is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. However, the D.C. trip gave our Tower Scholars Program cohort the tools to see U.S.-Saudi relations from a variety of perspectives. We met with varying experts on Saudi policy, from think-tank researchers such as Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Tamara Coffman Wittes and Former Ambassador Douglas Silliman, now President of the Arab Gulf States Institute, to US Representative Colin Allred and Senior National Security Advisor to Nancy Pelosi, Wyndee Parker. We also had the pleasure of meeting with Major General William Hix, a highly decorated and experienced serviceman in the Middle East as well as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joey Hood, who has enjoyed a long and fruitful career in the foreign service at the U.S. State Department. The opportunity to speak with so many experts on the region, whether they were academics, policymakers or serving in the armed forces, provided us with both individual and institutional perspectives on U.S. interests in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia.
Beyond the technical elements of our trip, it also served the very important purpose of bringing us closer as a cohort. Walking over two miles to Georgetown cupcakes, chatting over Thai food, and being tourists in the National Mall gave us all a shared experience and the time to get to know each other on a deeper level. This was very beneficial for the purposes of putting our heads together for our presentation, but also in creating new friendships and reinforcing our existing ones with our peers. The D.C. trip allowed us to learn about our peers beyond the classroom experience. It gave us a collective memory that will undoubtedly shape our undergraduate experience. We also forged a connection with older cohorts by meeting with Tower Scholars Program alumni. Through our similar perspectives, interests, and experiences, they were able to give us advice we could not get anywhere else. The value of the interpersonal relationships formed on this trip truly cannot be overstated.
It was difficult going back to a regular class schedule after leaving D.C. Tuesday mornings became boring again. Coffee at Starbucks, sleeping, or taking notes in class proved to be far less interesting than having lunch with John Lawrence, the former Chief of Staff to Speaker Pelosi. But the lessons learned, the friendships formed, and the excitement of the experience are not forgotten. The D.C. trip connects Highland Capital Management Scholars more with our classes, our projects, and each other, and gives us a fervor to continue learning. Our futures are shaped by programs like this, and our post-graduation lives will undoubtedly reflect their impact. We cannot thank SMU and the Tower Scholars Program enough for making our dreams a reality, because those four days were enough to create powerful memories for a lifetime.