Leadership UMiami creates pathways to success

Leadership UMiami 2020 cohort in front of the United States Capitol. Photos: Ashley A. Williams/University of Miami
By Ashley A. Williams

Leadership UMiami 2020 cohort in front of the United States Capitol. Photos: Ashley A. Williams/University of Miami

Leadership UMiami creates pathways to success

By Ashley A. Williams
The unique program ends with students in the nation’s capital, meeting with elected officials, exploring Capitol Hill, visiting the House Gallery, and more.

WASHINGTON—Leadership UMiami, the Butler Center for Service and Leadership’s intensive leadership immersion program, is creating pathways for students to not only learn about the democratic process but about their own civic identities.

Doreen Gustave, a University of Miami junior and member of the Leadership UMiami 2020 cohort, said she had no clue how much the trajectory of her life would change following her visit to Washington, D.C.

“This experience has changed my mindset and has made me be more open-minded,” said Gustave, who added Health Management Policy as a minor during her visit to the nation’s capital last week. “Just because I was going down one career path doesn’t mean that’s where I have to stay.” 

Rachel Stempler, a sophomore double-majoring in history and political science, shared that because of this trip she’s more open to pursuing post-graduate plans outside of law school.

“It was really nice to see that there are other alternative routes to success,” said Stempler. “I also enjoyed seeing people who followed their passion and really are in D.C. to help others; they are not there for the money or power.”

On the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 7, a group of 24 students including Gustave and Stempler, arrived in Washington, D.C. for a five-day trip that served as the capstone to their Leadership UMiami experience—which began in October.

Andrew Wiemer, director of the Butler Center for Service and Leadership, said the purpose of the trip was to learn how to create positive social change on topics that each student personally cares about. From exploring the halls of Capitol Hill, to meeting with leaders from NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, to speaking with the U.S. Department of Education deputy director Jake Steel, the trip provided the cohort with an up-close look at the work of D.C.’s decision makers. 

Meetings on Capitol Hill

An early morning and late night was the theme for Wednesday, Jan. 8. Before dawn, students were up and eating breakfast as they prepared for a full day of meetings on Capitol Hill. Traveling by train, the group of students made their way to the domed seat of Congress for a Democracy Community Panel featuring Ryan Drysdale, assistant director of campus partnerships of All In Campus Democracy Challenge; Carolyn Dewitt, president and executive director of Rock The Vote; Kathryn Quintin, partnership manager of Young Invincibles, working with the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition; Camille Martin, Voto Latino’s partnership associate; Kyle Upchurch, associate researcher at Tisch College’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education; and Wisdom Cole, national organizing manager for the NAACP Youth and College Division.

Leadership UMiami participants, all of whom are undergraduates, were able to ask the panel questions regarding nonpartisan campaign strategizing across campus to boost voter registration, how to build political power amongst younger generations, and how to better engage students in democracy overall.

(Story continues below photos.)

DC Panel

DC panel

dc panel

DC panel

Following the panel, students learned just how unpredictable things can be on Capitol Hill. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, from Miami-Dade's 25th congressional district, and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, from Broward County's 23rd congressional district, each paid a visit to discuss topics—including impeachment and the recent assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani—before motivating the young leaders to continue on the path of politics.

DC Congress Members

Afterward, Donna Shalala, UM's former president who represtents Miami-Dade's 27th congressional district, entered the room. She didn’t shy away from the tough questions from the group, as students wanted to hear her opinion on impeachment, environmental issues, and foreign relations.

Michel Pinard, an international affairs and Latin American studies double major from Caracas, Venezuela, said he was fortunate to have been chosen for this year’s Leadership UMiami and is now more aware of the importance of civic engagement.

“Coming from a foreign country and being able to see the democratic system in the United States at work has provided me with a unique and special perspective that I will always remember,” said Pinard. “Especially the opportunities that we as a cohort had listening to current representatives and their staff.” 

Once those meetings concluded, students made their way to the Russell Senate Office Building to meet with various elected officials and their staff, including Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, from Miami-Dade's 26th congressional district, after their tour of the Capitol. To their surprise, she escorted the group through an underground tunnel that led to the House Gallery, where sophomore Landon Coles said he and his peers were able to “witness true democracy in action with political icons,” including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Maxine Waters.

“The House floor was reminiscent of a high school social hour with the representatives speaking loudly and animatedly with allies from near and far,” said Landon Coles, a sophomore majoring in political science. “The only word to describe this surreal experience is gratitude.”


Students in front of Rubio office

Students in capitol

Students in DC


A look back in time

On the morning of Thursday, Jan. 9, the students began their day at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. More than 7 million people have visited the interactive museum since it opened in September 2016, offering an experience that takes visitors centuries back in time.

Sophomore Jasmine Ortiz said the way the information was presented led her on an emotional journey through the lens of the African-American experience in this country.

“It’s different than reading a history book or listening to a lecture,” said Ortiz, a triple major in contemporary music performance, professional music studies, and political science. “They give you visuals, audio, they give you so much of the experience that so many people had to go through from the early days of slavery to all the injustice that has been faced by the African-American community.”

Randy Fitzgerald, a D.C. native, has visited the museum countless times. He said each time gets better than the last as there’s so much history to explore.

“You start in an elevator and you go down to the year 1400—back in time—and as you move up, you’re seeing the advancement of rights in this country for people of color,” said Fitzgerald, a junior studying history, political science, economics, and international studies. “I think the layout is just so magnificent. There’s a lot of artifacts and cool things that I studied in my history classes that I get to be up close and personal with.”

Students at musuem

That evening, the full cohort met and interacted with UM alumni who reside in the D.C. area for a networking reception at Florida House—sometimes referred to as the only “State Embassy” on Capitol Hill. The privately owned education and information center provides a space that connects, celebrates, and champions Florida to the world.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees, was in attendance and encouraged students to apply for summer internship opportunities with his company, if they were interested.

UM alumna Erum Kidwai, who was in the first Leadership UMiami and is pursuing her law degree at Georgetown University, said the experience tremendously helped jump-start her career, and she is grateful for the tools it provided.

“This program was the only experience in undergrad that allowed me to work on my public speaking and how to prepare for it,” said Kidwai. "My small group focused on education policy, and that is what I am studying.”

Johnny C Taylor

Networking in DC

DC Alum

Fire Drill Fridays

On Friday, Jan. 10, students gathered in front of the Capitol for a group photo when Ava Mandele, a sophomore majoring in health care policy and management, noticed a commotion.

“Oh my goodness, it's Fire Drill Fridays,” she exclaimed.

In the blink of an eye, the Leadership UMiami participants found themselves in the middle of actress and climate activist Jane Fonda’s latest weekly climate protest. Actors Joaquin Phoenix, a recent Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee, and Martin Sheen where the latest stars to be arrested.

“Arguably, the greatest component of this trip was to expect the unexpected,” said Coles.

One small group of students had a surprising encounter when they wandered onto Capitol Hill in search of their idol, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, and heard her familair voice. 

“I was speechless,” said Mandele. “Makayla [Manning] and I heard her in her office, but we didn’t want to interrupt.”

The group decided to call it a day and move on with their research at a nearby museum, when one of AOC's staffers opened the door, where the congresswoman stood. “I was just in shock," said Mandele. "She was the kindest person ever. She thanked us for coming and gave each of us hugs.”

AOC and students

Because of the Leadership UMiami program, Diane Stephen, a junior majoring in health science and public health, now has a clearer idea of her future plans. Coming into the program, she didn’t know what to expect as she is enrolled in a STEM-related program—unlike others in the program who are pursuing political and policy studies.

“This experience has motivated me to want to open a company of my own one day,” said Stephen. “I now know that I want to dedicate my time assisting in the nonprofit sector. I would love to open an organization that donates medical supplies to clinics in Haiti.”

For Stephen, seeing elected officials and alumni ’Canes in action has “undeniably empowered” future leaders of the UM community and beyond.

“I am so grateful for this opportunity to explore my interests,” she said. “As a civic scholar, this has truly been an eye-opening experience.” 

Protests in DC

On Friday, Jan. 17, the Leadership UMiami students will develop and present an individual civic blueprint for their own civic journies that lie ahead. Each of the small groups also will present an action plan to help create change in the University community around their individual group topics. Then each student will receive a medal for successfully completing the program.

This is the final installment in a four-part series following Leadership UMiami's 2020 cohort.