Opportunities abound for politically minded students at the University of Mary Washington.
Stephen Farnsworth, director of the university’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said UMW—situated halfway between the nation’s and the commonwealth’s capitals—stands at the intersection of local, state and federal government.
“With the center, we are able to take advantage of our location,” said Farnsworth, who is professor of political science. “We are in a great position – students can be a part of political matters that interest them.”
Students are able to intern during the academic year in either Richmond or D.C., without having to take a semester off. In fact, several UMW students are interning with presidential and senatorial campaigns this fall.
Those experiences often lead to jobs in politics after graduation.
“Over the past dozen years, many Mary Washington students have graduated and gone on to work for presidential campaigns, state senators and members of Congress as soon as they put away their caps and gowns,” Farnsworth said.
The center, established in 2011, aims to increase the connections between UMW students, political figures and recent alumni, Farnsworth explained, through bringing political leaders to campus and linking current students with alumni in government fields.
In recent semesters, the center co-sponsored a Fredericksburg mayoral debate, brought Virginia Speaker of the House Bill Howell to address students and invited Byron Tau, White House correspondent for Politico, to speak in political science classes.
“Students are really excited to meet political figures and national reporters,” Farnsworth said. “These kinds of opportunities are rare, but they are events we can put together here given our location and the level of student and university interest.”
In the fall, the center brought a group a group of students to D.C. to meet with journalists and the C-SPAN Civics Bus and the Washington Journal visited the Fredericksburg campus to give students an interactive look at government and public affairs.
In the classroom, students have the chance to learn from renowned political scientists, like Farnsworth, who have published their own research. His research on the news coverage of presidential elections, including his 2011 book “The Nightly News Nightmare: Media Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2008” and his recent study “News Coverage of New Presidents in The New York Times, 1981-2009,” is most important to students out of all of his work, Farnsworth said.
“We all consume media,” he said. “It is important to look at the media as scientifically as possible and ask ‘what product is being produced?’”
Farnsworth, a Fulbright Scholar who has won three campus-wide teaching awards at UMW, uses his research to teach students about media and politics while encouraging them to think critically and come up with their own ideas. He also encourages his students to share their work with a broader audience. During his years at Mary Washington, he has supervised half a dozen political science students who have won national writing awards, a distinction he said is evidence of Mary Washington’s prominence in student political science research and writing.
“We can have really interesting discussions that bring together scholarly work on elections but also the real-world experience that they have,” Farnsworth said, noting that many of his students have already interned or worked in politics before they take his class.
In a similar way, he hopes the center will integrate the academic perspectives in the classroom with hands-on experience in the field.
“One of my goals as a teacher is to provide a comprehensive experience,” he said. “What we can do with the center is not only promote internships, but also to try to integrate those things into the classroom.”