Ileana Ros-Lehtinen returns to the classroom

Former U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Barbara Gutierrez

Former U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen returns to the classroom

By Barbara Gutierrez
A UM Distinguished Presidential Fellow, the former congresswoman is co-teaching a political science class with her husband.

There is one important prerequisite for every student taking University of Miami Political Science Course 571: Each must carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution to every class.

Their professor insists on it.

“It is not a historical document that is only for academics or the courts; it is a guide to how our government is structured, who answers to who,” she said. “The truth of the Constitution is alive and well.” 

She should know. 

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was recently appointed a UM Distinguished Presidential Fellow, spent nearly 30 years in Congress as the representative of Florida’s 27th congressional district, which includes Coral Gables. 

Now she spends her Monday afternoons co-teaching the political science class “Congress and American Foreign Policy” with her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. 

With her ever-present joviality and high energy, Ros-Lehtinen arrived to class last Monday with a loud greeting to her students. A longtime elementary school teacher, this is her first foray into teaching college. She quickly began to take attendance. 

“Can’t believe the elementary school teacher in you,” joked her husband.

Dexter Lehtinen
Dexter Lehtinen

Among the many topics the class explores is the separation of powers in the government, which includes the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. 

There was no better example to show the separation of powers than “last week’s drama” between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump, said Ros-Lehtinen. 

To show how the drama unfolded, Ros-Lehtinen handed the students copies of the letters that Pelosi and Trump exchanged in the past two weeks, where each exercised their individual powers. In the letters, Pelosi disinvites Trump from giving the State of the Union address in the House of Representatives, citing security concerns over the extended government shutdown. Trump responds by not allowing Pelosi to use an Air Force plane to take a congressional trip to Afghanistan. 

“Who would have thunk that this would happen this week right after we talked about it in class?” said Ros-Lehtinen, who holds a doctorate from UM. “This is so well played from both sides.”      

The students laughed when Ros-Lehtinen displayed a page from the website The Onion that showed Pelosi trying to swim to Afghanistan after her planned trip was cancelled. 

In the coming weeks, students will learn about U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba and Taiwan, as well as congressional limits on covert action and intelligence gathering. Ros-Lehtinen’s years in Congress and in several congressional committees add valuable insights for the students.   

For Denisse Sandoval, a senior majoring in political science whose parents came from Nicaragua, the class is a dream come true.

She had been a longtime admirer of the congresswoman since her parents told her how Ros-Lehtinen was at the forefront of pushing legislation for temporary protected status, or TPS, for Nicaraguans and others to remain in the U.S. and eventually become naturalized citizens.

“There was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity,” Sandoval said. ”She is a great role model for all of us women. She is so impressive.” 

Britney Sanchez, a senior who is majoring in political science, took copious notes on everything her professor said. 

“I always wanted to meet her so I decided to take the class,” remarked Sanchez, noting that the class grew from 15 to 28 students quickly. “And who knows, I may go into politics.”