Junior Fellows Travel to Arkansas

Mike Yawn

Published in: The Huntsville Item: December 30th, 2005.

Sam Houston State University has greatly expanded its off-campus offerings in recent years, adding courses in The Woodlands and on the internet.  But for several Political Science students, their newest class extended through the state of Arkansas, and their classrooms included the Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock Central High School, and the Arkansas gubernatorial campaign trail. 

            Their experiences in Arkansas from November 3rd-6th were part of the Political Science Department’s new Junior Fellows Program, which promotes hands-on learning, civic involvement, and leadership skills.  The program, according to Political Science Chair Bob Biles, fosters learning through direct involvement: “It’s a great opportunity for them to learn by doing.  The curriculum enriches their experience, and, in turn, their experiences enrich our classrooms.”

            This happy marriage of theory and application was evident in Arkansas, as history books and civics lessons sprang to life.  Classroom discussions of the “burdens of the Presidency” were captured in the Clinton Presidential Library, where the students could view President Clinton’s schedules, often detailing minute-by-minute his fourteen-hour days.  On a larger scale, the Library transformed the 1990s into something more than a “go-go decade,” as the students traced a timeline of events from 1993 through 2001, colorizing dim memories of NAFTA, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the war in Bosnia.      

            Less than two weeks after the death of Rosa Parks, the junior fellows revisited the ghosts of a different civil rights battle when they toured Little Rock Central High School.  It was here in 1957 that the “Little Rock Nine” were escorted by the National Guard into the pages of history books, amidst much racist outrage.  A modest one-room museum across from the high school captures the poignant images of the time.  The students recognized the photos from their history books, but in this setting the pictures took on a panoramic quality, reflecting the difficulties of America’s ongoing struggle for equality, over which the Little Rock Nine labored long ago.  The site ranked high on the students’ list of favorites, a sentiment perhaps expressed best by Emily Johnson, who recorded the following notation in the museum guestbook: “Thank you for keeping these memories alive, in hopes that no one will have to relive these experiences.”

            The students also visited Arkansas’ old Statehouse, toured the State Capitol Building, and visited the Governor’s Mansion, where they lounged for a time in Governor Mike Huckabee’s living room, and even played with his black Lab, Jet.  On a less political note, the students enjoyed visiting Arkansas’ Old Mill, the setting for the opening of Gone With the Wind.  For Samantha Lee, who ranks Gone With the Wind as her favorite movie, the setting was a special treat.  For Johnson, “it was simply beautiful, and it was great to see all the happy couples” who came to enjoy the lush and romantic surroundings.

But the reflective nature of their visits to historical sites contrasted sharply with the rapid pace of their campaign work.  As part of their field experience, three of the students committed to a two-day stint with Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe, who is making a bid for the governorship in what is expected to be the most competitive state-wide race in the South.  It was a unique learning experience for Sam Houston students, whose home state has trended toward one-party rule over the past decade.

The students were given typical volunteer work: folding signs, shredding documents, filing, and organizing campaign literature.  These tasks were punctuated periodically by impromptu seminars organized by the campaign staff.  There, the students learned about the media operations and the legal, procedural, and organizational aspects of fundraising.  The presentations were skillfully conducted, mixing an insider’s knowledge with illuminating anecdotes that offered insight into the candidate—nicely complemented when General Beebe arrived and spoke to the students himself.   It was, as Brynn Reynolds noted, “much more than I had any expectation of learning.” 

After working late on Friday night, the second day of campaigning began early; the students were up by six am.  It was homecoming at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a historically-black college located about sixty miles from Little Rock.  Forty thousand people were expected to attend the festivities, and, in a campaign, where there are voters, there are candidates. And Mike Beebe was everywhere.  He was in the parade, he met with university officials, he was at the tailgate party after the parade, he was at the game.  He met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people that day.  With him were the students.  They held signs, distributed literature, helped set up the tailgate party, distributed shirts, fed visitors, answered questions, played with children, and spoke with General Beebe.  Emily Johnson even served as the official photographer for the day, following Beebe through stadium grounds, snapping more than 150 photographs of the candidate interacting with potential voters.  “It was a wonderful day,” said Johnson, “and I’ll have hundreds of photographs to remind me of it.”

The work was appreciated by Attorney General Beebe, who lauded the students’ “inspiration and commitment,” which “is instrumental to keeping the future of democracy alive.  We were excited that students from Sam Houston State lent us their time and effort and joined us on the campaign trail.”  The students, too, were excited, and plans of a return trip are in the early planning stage.  Speaking as a group, the students expressed their “great appreciation to Attorney General Mike Beebe for his willingness to provide such a wonderful learning opportunity to students from another state.  He and his campaign staff went far beyond what courtesy required, and we have benefited greatly.”

The trip is a culmination of many such educational experiences.  They have attended town hall meetings presented by Texas Representative Lois Kolkhorst, a lecture by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and speeches by former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney—which have taken them to seven cities in two states and the District of Columbia.  And next semester, the program will be expanded, further enriching the students and their classrooms—wherever those classrooms might be.