Each year, we spotlight our Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Seniors. We enjoy hearing about their journey through the program and how their perspective on the importance of sound policy evolved when combined with their own academic interests. This year, we asked our incoming and current scholars to interview the seniors and were delighted by the conversations captured.
Alexandra Pugh, ’24 interviewed Austin Hickle, ’22, to learn more about his experience in the Tower Scholars Program, his internships and his time in the Student Senate as the Student Body President.
Alexandra: Tell me about your experience in Tower Scholars.
Austin: It’s one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had on campus. Tower is driven toward a specific purpose and it’s much smaller, so it really gives you a cohort of like-minded individuals that will push you to go for the things you want to go for.
The community is also so strong. It really allows you to lean on each other. There are many opportunities on campus, and it’s nice to have a group of individuals who have your same type of passions. That doesn’t mean we’re all interested in the same type of policy or public service; across my cohort, some of us are interested in environmental policy, some are interested in human rights, and I’m very interested in education policy. But it’s all connected to this idea that public policy can create change in our world. Having those people to collaborate with in class or on research, and just having that community has been super important to me.
Alexandra: What are the Tower courses like?
Austin: They’ve been challenging, but that’s as it should be and I’m grateful for that experience. The cohort supports each other, and you get to take classes that no one else on campus gets to take. Something I think SMU, and specifically Tower Scholars, does really well is giving their students opportunities for real-world application. For example, in our junior Tower seminar, we worked with the client Hunt Oil and Gas, so I learned a ton about oil and gas, which is something I hadn’t really dived into before.
We looked at the changing oil and gas landscape and the rising possibilities for renewable and clean energy, and how a large company like Hunt Oil and Gas should adapt to that. At the end of the year, we presented our work to members of its administration, and
they asked a lot of questions and seemed interested in implementing the strategies we proposed. It was a great opportunity for the whole Tower cohort to work together all semester. Outside of just oil and gas, I’ve learned how to apply the concepts we learn in class to a specific company or sector. Taking those lessons forward has been very important to me.
Alexandra: Tell me about your Tower internship.
Austin: I’m working for Texas 2036, which is a group based in Austin and founded by the former Education Secretary Margaret Spelling. In the year 2036, Texas will reach its 200th anniversary, so the 2036 group is looking at what Texas will look like in terms of the workforce, education, and energy in 2036. I’m working in the education sector of the group. The group is really cool because it looks ahead to what our state will look like further down the road – how can we start working towards those future goals now? If we want to, say, eliminate the achievement gap between low- and high-income students by 2036, what should we do now to get to that point? It’s really fun to gather data not for something that’s immediate but for something that’s very long-term. I’ve been working on a specific project regarding teacher salaries right now, and I’ll present that to the whole class in December.
This last piece of our Tower sequence really showcases the ideal of the Tower Scholars Program. It’s combining in-class understanding of policy with real-world, practical experiences. That is something no school does better than SMU Tower Scholars. There’s so much to be said about learning skills in a classroom, but also learning how to apply them in the real world.
Alexandra: What other internships have you done?
Austin: Last summer, I interned for the Department of State in the African Affairs Bureau. I’ve worked on the Hill twice for two different members of Congress, and I’ve worked for the Department of Energy twice as well.
I’ve also taught in Kenya and Puerto Rico, and worked in education in Cameroon and Senegal, so I got some experience on the education side of things. In Kenya, I taught for a non-profit that takes the top scorers on the KCSE, which is like the Kenyan equivalent of the SAT, and prepares those students to take the SAT and apply to colleges in America. I worked with those students on English grammar and math. I also went to Cameroon through the Richter program, and there I did a needs assessment of six different schools that had been dealing with teacher shortages or other obstacles. It’s one thing to rebuild an education system following a catastrophe, but Cameroon has been in a state of civil war for the past three years. So, the question was: what can we do now? Three years of complete learning loss would derail Cameroon’s recent development, so that was the question guiding my research. After, I ended up setting up an online learning group that connected 20 students in Cameroon to teachers around the world. I also did a two-week study abroad program in the summer of 2019, and then I taught in Puerto Rico in a similar program to the Kenyan non-profit. I’ve also applied for a Fulbright grant to teach in South Korea next year.
Working with the Department of State last summer, I finally got to combine what I’ve learned on the policy side with on-the-ground experience in teaching, working, and doing research. It was really valuable for me to put it all together.
Alexandra: What are your plans after graduation? Do you have a dream job in mind?
Austin: Law school is the plan. Last year I won the Truman scholarship, which will fund my grad school. But, I really want to take the opportunity after this year not to go straight to law school. I want to get out and experience a different culture, or just work, and then go to law school after that. Either Fulbright or some type of work next year, then law school for three years, and then education policy, which is what I think I want to go into. And that could be through working with a think tank, working in politics, or working as a lawyer.
Down the road, I would really like to go into public service. I want to come back to Dallas and get involved politically, with the city, and with education here. I don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but that is the kind of work I would like to pursue.
Austin: I think I’ve learned a lot about how to be a leader through Tower. In a junior year course, we looked at how policy decisions are made and how to evaluate those processes. We look at some fallacies or shortcomings of decision-making institutions, but also how different presidents have set up systems to make decisions. Does the president rely on a certain group? If so, how many people are in that group, and what does he do to discourage group think? Does he rely on his own personal beliefs to make a decision?
From Tower, I learned a lot about how to set up the structure of Student Senate to ensure real work is being done and real conversations are happening. One of the first things I did when I became president was to completely restructure the Senate. We set up new committees, we tasked the senators with different responsibilities, and my and the vice president’s roles shifted. I think I subconsciously learned a lot about how to do that through Tower. For example, we used caucus times in chamber, where the senators would break into small groups to discuss a certain topic. And that was the moment where we were supposed to get real work done. But what I saw was that when you have the whole group together, that’s when people should report on work they’ve already done. It’s like a President’s cabinet meeting: the department secretaries give updates on what they’ve been working on – they don’t break off and get that work done then and there in the meeting. For Senate, we set up committees that meet outside of chamber, and now we use chamber as a time when senators can update the entire group with what they’ve been working on. And I learned how to set up a structure like that through Tower by analyzing different structures of government. The things you learn in Tower become subconscious; I wasn’t even thinking specifically about Tower when I set up the Senate structure – it was just something I understood better because we learned it in a real-world setting.