A Busy Day: Two Schar School Learning Communities Tour Capitol, DOJ

Young people with tourist headphones stand under an ornate gold dome.
Democracy Lab students take in the Rotunda of the Capitol building. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

As the famed Washington, D.C., cherry blossoms reached their peak bloom on a chilly Friday in late March, two groups of students from the Schar School of Policy and Government made the trip from George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus to destinations in the nation’s capital. The nearly 50-or-so undergraduates making the visits represented two Schar School learning communities: While Democracy Lab took to Capitol Hill, the Jurisprudence Learning Community spent most of the day at the U.S. Department of Justice.

A group of well-dressed students and their teacher pose in front of the Capitol building.
Members of the Democracy Lab and Lab director Jennifer Victor, center in green, pose on the Capitol steps. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

Democracy Lab Sees House Vote

With Congress in session, the day started with the Mason students seeing all 435 members of the House of Representatives at once on the House floor. For some, it was a dazzling sight.

“It’s crazy to see all of the people you see in the media right in front of you,” said first-year government and international politics (GVIP) major Zane Ryan-Hart, taking in the view. He and classmates were intrigued as they witnessed several floor votes take place, in effect moving proposals on their way into laws.

The tour, a first-time visit for most of the students, took in the Capitol Galleries, the majestic domed Rotunda, and the museum at the visitor center before dining in the Capitol cafeteria for lunch.

Robinson Professor of Public Affairs Steven Pearlstein and Schar School associate professor Jennifer Victor led the group and gave the students insights into political life on the Hill. The tour was joined by two current Schar School students currently interning in the House: GVIP major Aidan Jacobs works with U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), and public administration major Will Dagle is appointed to the office of Zach Nunn (R-IA). The legislative interns gave the students insights as to how a congressional office works and how to land an internship on the Hill.

While some students arranged meetings with their home district representatives in advance, Connecticut native Joey Rizzo, a freshman majoring in public administration, unexpectedly met his representative Jim Himes (D-CN) in the Capitol’s marble hallway. “It was cool—I got to shake his hand,” Rizzo said. On second thought, “I should have taken a photo!”

A man in a suit gestures at onlookers sitting at a table.
Jonathan Wroblewski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, addresses the Jurisprudence Learning Community students at the Department of Justice. Photo by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government

The tour ended with another missed photo opportunity involving a small dog: Students stopped to pet the adorable canine, but first asked the owner for permission. It turns out it was Deco, the French bulldog being walked by his owner, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). AOC and Deco appreciated the attention.

Federal Lawyers Meet with Jurisprudence LC

Attorney General Merrick Garland was on the agenda, but he was understandably caught up in headline-making decisions. Instead, 24 students from Mason’s Jurisprudence Learning Community (JPLC) visiting the Department of Justice on Pennsylvania Avenue spent the afternoon with Garland’s engaging chief of staff, Matt Klapper, enjoyed a surprise drop-in visit from Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the very busy Southern District of New York, and experienced an extended question-and-answer session with Jonathan Wroblewski, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Office of Legal Policy, the attorney general’s main policy advisor.

Those conversations came on the heels of the JPLC’s own visit to the Capitol where they had meetings in the Russell Senate Office Building with John Connolly, counsel to U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Ryan Raybould, chief counsel to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

Each meeting with distinguished attorneys provided new layers of understanding as to how the DOJ operates and how lawyers become federal authorities.

Klapper caught students’ attention when he revealed he began his career as a firefighter before dovetailing into advising for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NY). For his part, Williams was emphatic in stressing that the students should do “something that brings you joy” in the legal field. “I don’t do this for money,” the prosecutor said, “I do it for joy, for performing a public service.”

Wroblewski, a former adjunct at the George Mason School of Law (now the Antonin Scalia Law School), afforded an engaging conversation detailing a career in law, from how to determine the best practice suited for the would-be lawyer to how careers and their benchmarks for success change over time.

Sophomore GVIP student Miranda Céspedes, reflecting on her first visit to the wood-paneled rooms of the historic 1935 Art Deco building, said the federal attorneys confirmed that “I have various different avenues that I can go forward with once I get my law degree. It's definitely in my future,” she said.

A group of students and their director pose in an ornate hallway.
Jurisprudence Learning Community students and JPLC director Ally Coll, center in white, pose for a parting shot at the DOJ. Photo by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government