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Kent State’s Washington Program Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Posted July 22, 2013 | Megan Confer
enter photo description
Participants and facilitators of Kent State University's
Washington Program in National Issues get together for a
photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

In 1973, Kent State University’s Washington Program in National Issues (WPNI) began as a living-learning experience with the goal of teaching students about – and exposing them to – the government. Working closely with Kent State alumni who live in Washington, D.C., student evaluations of their semester exposure to the government as a supplement to traditional textbook learning were – in their words – “valuable.”

Don Shook, then director of the Kent State University Alumni Association, was quoted in the 1974 issue of the Kent State Magazine, saying “the Washington program was designed to offer a great deal of individual investigation by the student with Kent [State] alumni helping to schedule briefings and interviews.”

Richard Robyn, assistant professor in Kent State’s Department of Political Science and director of the Washington program, travels with the students to Washington, D.C., for the semester.

“It's an extraordinary program that has been around a very long time,” Robyn explains. “In fact, WPNI is the oldest continually running, off-campus program of the university. That makes us unique for Kent State and in D.C. as well. We are one of the very few programs in Washington that has a faculty member from campus on-site for the semester.”

Robyn says students often get involved in the program first by word of mouth, finding out from friends and faculty.

“Then they have an interview with me, which involves finding out about their backgrounds and their interests,” Robyn says. “I want to determine if the program is right for them before they start the application process.”

The program is competitive and only about half the students who consider the program are finally accepted.

“There is a GPA requirement,” Robyn says. “We want students who are well-suited for this program because it is very active and involves internship work. They’re having fun, but not the typical fun of an undergraduate on campus.”

Students spend three days a week interning and working in Washington, D.C., and the other two days completing the academic part of the program.

“The students take a class with me on contemporary politics and American government,” Robyn says. “Briefings and in-depths meetings also take place with a variety of professionals around Washington, including government officials.”

Over the past 40 years, the program has evolved immensely.

“One big difference is that the group the first year didn’t do any internships, just briefings,” Robyn explains. “Also, the director of the program previously didn’t stay with the students. The internship experiences started, and the faculty began to stay with the students. The program became much more stable.”

Robyn says the alumni have had a tremendous impact on the program since the beginning.

“We have hundreds of alumni in Washington who are still involved in significant ways with the program,” Robyn says. “We owe a lot to the alumni.”

For the 40th year celebration, the alumni planning committee is made up of more than 15 Kent State alumni who are very active in setting up the program, getting guests and raising funds. The big celebration at the end of the semester was held April 25 in Washington, D.C., in the grand ballroom of the National Press Club. Connie Schultz, ’92, a Kent State graduate who was involved in the program in 1979, and who later was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the The Plain Dealer, provided the keynote presentation. She was introduced at the event by her husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

“Several alumni from each of the decades told brief anecdotes about their year and gave the crowd a sense of how the program had evolved,” Robyn says. “We established the WPNI Founder’s Award — and presented the first one to Francis Richardson, one of the key founders of the program. It will now become an annual award.”

Daniel Moore, a Kent State journalism major, joined the program to immerse himself in Washington.

“I'm a big fan of immersion in any subject of writing,” Moore says. “If you're not there, you don't understand it. Period. So I decided to take a break from all of the other things I was writing about and focus on national and international politics for an intense 15 weeks.”

Moore interned with the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal advice to student journalists who face issues of censorship from their administrations.

“I worked for the publications wing, writing daily news stories and longer magazine features about cases of First Amendment legal cases involving student journalists,” Moore says. “We also get involved in public record disputes, such as a college that doesn't want to release public information to their student body.”

Bill Miller, a 1956 Kent State journalism graduate, helped start the program in 1973 when he was president of the National Capital Chapter of the alumni association in Washington. Now retired, Miller is still involved with the program today.

“I take the journalism students to the National Press Club, and I am on the planning committee for the 40th anniversary celebration,” Miller says. “I’ve been involved in creating the award that we are going to give out every year to the person who has made the most outstanding contribution to WPNI.”

Miller describes the program’s evolution as spectacular.

“The program really began in rundown housing with a part-time professor who came down from Kent one day a week. Fran Richardson, a local alumni volunteer, essentially ran the program and was sort of a house mother to the students,” Miller explains. “Now the students have splendid housing in Silver Spring, Md., and a full-time professor, Dr. Robyn. It is great to see a small program that began as a minor part of the university grow into something the university now takes great pride in.”

For more information about Kent State’s Washington Program in National Issues, visit www.kent.edu/wpni.