Les Aspin Center celebrates 25th anniversary

Photo courtesy of Caroline Campbell

Photo courtesy of Caroline Campbell

The Les Aspin Center for Government is celebrating its 25th anniversary today, giving students, faculty and alumni a chance to reflect on the program’s growth and impact over the years.

To celebrate, Aspin Center founder and director The Rev. Timothy O’Brien will go “On the Issues” with Mike Gousha at 5:30 p.m. tonight in Eckstein Hall. Following that, a reunion and reception will be held for program alumni at 6:30 p.m. in the Haggerty Museum of Art.

Founded in 1988, the Les Aspin Center has provided Marquette students with the opportunity to study in Washington, D.C., and to gain hands-on experience in American government and public policy.

The Rev. Timothy O’Brien established the center, originally named the Marquette University Washington Program, when he took 27 students to Washington for the summer of 1988.

The 1994 hiring of Les Aspin, who served as Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1994, revolutionized the program. He began working with O’Brien to expand the university’s presence in Washington and further developed the internship program. The center was renamed after him after his unexpected death from a stroke in 1995.

Bill Neidhardt, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences and a former executive vice president of Marquette Student Government, spent nine months studying at Les Aspin.

“I interned at Senator Dick Durbin’s office and was eventually hired for the summer by them,” Neidhardt said. “The Aspin Center is pretty remarkable because of its focus on experiential learning, taking what you do in your internship on the hill and then contextualizing that in the classes that you’re taking.”

Since the center’s opening, more than 2,200 students have interned at more than 100 congressional offices, the State Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Secret Service, the Defense Department and the White House. According to the Les Aspin Center website, as many as 50 Les Aspin alumni are working as professional staff for members Congress at any given time.

“The whole idea behind an experiential learning program, working in a Congressional office while studying Congress and public policy engages the whole student emotionally and intellectually,” O’Brien said.

Starting in 1995, the center has also trained and educated about 400 leaders from Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali and Nigeria. This includes many members of those countries’ respective parliaments and non-governmental organization officials.

“I’m a huge proponent of when students must adapt to what they’ve learned in textbooks,” O’Brien said. “I’ve done that the last 20 years by taking students to study in Africa to study comparative government. That’s how we really learn.”

Evan Umpir, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, is currently studying at the Les Aspin Center and interning in Senator Ron Johnson’s office.

“Most of us are on the Hill but there a few in government agencies and other groups operating in Washington.” Umpir said. “I got a chance to go to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Benghazi with Secretary Clinton. Probably the highlight for all of us this semester though, was the inauguration in January.  Regardless of your political persuasion, it was a great opportunity to see the President take the oath of office.”

The Les Aspin Center expanded again in 2005 when former U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka (D-Wis.) designed a local initiative to engage students in Milwaukee. The Kleczka Internship Program places interns from different fields of study in city, county and state legislative offices in Wisconsin.

Evan Umpir, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, is a current student at the center and is also working as an intern for Sen. Ron Johnson. While Umpir spoke highly of his classes and internship, he said the best part of being at the center was having the opportunity to observe politics first hand.

“ I got a chance to go to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Benghazi with Secretary Clinton… (and) a number of us also went to see Sen. Rand Paul filibuster the nomination of John Brennan to be Director of the CIA,” Umpir said. “Probably the highlight for all of us this semester though, was the inauguration in January.  Regardless of your political persuasion, it was a great opportunity to see the President take the oath of office.”

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