The next generation of political leaders

The next generation of political leaders

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Through RIPPAC, students learn the ins and outs of politics, citizenship
At the statehouse: RIPPAC students (from left) Alex Wilson, Jason Brooks, Hafiza Kazi, Santino D’Agostino, and Tim Corey are interning in Trenton this summer.

Hafiza Kazi and Santino D’Agostino have different political views.

But when it comes to talking about the value of their experiences this summer, they agree wholeheartedly.

“I love it,” Kazi, president of Rowan Democrats, says of her internship with the New Jersey Democratic Party in Trenton. “I’m very into the work.”

“I’m keeping up with current political events and getting to know who’s who in the game of New Jersey politics,” adds D’Agostino, who is interning with the New Jersey Republican Party and serves as president of the Rowan College Republicans. “It’s the coolest thing. I don’t know where I’ll work when I graduate. But I now know I belong somewhere in this field.”

That’s music to the ears of Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship (RIPPAC). Through RIPPAC, 30 Rowan students landed internships this summer in New Jersey and Pennsylvania working with elected officials, lobbying groups, and other issue advocacy efforts.

The work, Dworkin says, is critical.

“At RIPPAC, we are playing a major role in training the next generation of political leaders,” says Dworkin. “Politics is the single best way for one person to make the biggest difference on the most amount of people. In a representative democracy, people have to take responsibility not just for themselves, but for their government.

“For many Americans, our politics seem broken. We need citizens who are informed, engaged and trained in how to make politics work.”

Distinguished speakers

RIPPAC was founded just last year to inform and engage Rowan students, faculty and the public on issues related to politics and citizen participation. Since January of 2018, the institute has hosted programs and guest speakers that include a veritable who’s who of state, local and national politics.

Among them: former Gov. Chris Christie, who chose Rowan as the site for his first talk since leaving office—and then returned earlier this month for the Mid-Atlantic Political Intern Summit ; former Gov. Jim Florio; New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney; New Jersey General Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin; Congressman Donald Norcross; Congressman Frank Pallone; NBC and MSNBC political analyst Steve Kornacki; and several others.

Career building

But beyond the guest speakers, who have spoken formally and informally to students, faculty and community members, RIPPAC works to support students through their academic and career development.

D’Agostino knows about that first hand.

After changing his major from music to political science his sophomore year, D’Agostino was drawn to RIPPAC because of the career opportunities. He attended a resume writing workshop—a terrific resource for students—hosted by Dworkin.

“I didn’t even have a resume at that point,” says D’Agostino. “Now, my resume is very clean and polished.”

D’Agostino got more involved in the institute, attending informal talks, including one by Camden County Freeholder Bill Moen ’09, who is seeking a seat in the General Assembly this year.

“I thought, ‘Wow. He came to Rowan and has accomplished all of this?’ D’Agostino says, adding that he also enjoyed talks by Sweeney and Christie. “RIPPAC offers every student an insider’s perspective.”

Thanks to RIPPAC, last summer, D’Agostino worked as a legislative research intern for the New Jersey Senate Minority Office and as a campaign intern for the Burlington County Republican Committee.

This year, he is learning the analytics of politics, including how to compile and read voter propensity sheets. In addition to other tasks such as assisting constituents and working events, D’Agostino also is helping to develop a digital campaign tutorial that can be used in statewide campaigns.

Like most internships in politics, D’Agostino’s internship is unpaid. But because he was the recipient of a $2,500 Rick Rosenberg Jr. Memorial Scholarship, D’Agostino was able to forego selling kids’ sneakers at the mall and working the overnight shift at a local gym to take the internship in Trenton. The scholarship was established by the family of Rosenberg, a campaign consultant and rising star in the GOP who died suddenly in 2017 at age 31. Rosenberg was a former student of Dworkin’s.

“The Rosenberg scholarship allowed me to fully focus on my internship,” says D’Agostino, who was one of three students to receive the scholarship.

The campaign life

Kazi, a rising senior, is an internship veteran who has worked for the Gloucester County Democratic Committee and for Sweeney’s re-election campaign. She also interned at Princeton Strategies, assisting with fundraisers for elected officials in Philadelphia and canvassing the city during primary campaigns.

For the Democratic State Committee, she’s researched and prepared briefings for Gov. Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy and researched and logged information on candidates and party caucus members throughout the state, among other duties.

“I love the campaign life. It’s the best thing on the planet,” says Kazi, whose internship is 16 hours weekly.

“And I love helping to raise money for the party,” continues Kazi, who is eyeing a future working in non-profit or Democratic fundraising.

She appreciates that RIPPAC programming is bi-partisan, she says.

“I’m happy Rowan is offering speakers from both sides,” says Kazi. “I sit on the very liberal side on a lot of things, but I’m glad we all have a space to address, learn about and debate the issues. Whatever side we are on, there are a lot of people here on campus trying to better everyone’s lives.”

Agency work

While the majority of this summer’s RIPPAC interns are working for elected officials and political parties, some are working in county prosecutor’s offices, lobbying firms and other governmental agencies.

Ryan Flatley and JoAnna Contarino both landed dream internships in their chosen career fields.

Flatley, a rising senior economics major, is interning in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Jersey headquarters, where he is working closely with federal agents. Last year, Flatley, whose goal is to be a federal law enforcement agent with the DEA or the IRS, interned with former Congressman Leonard Lance in Washington, D.C.

“It was eye opening to see the legislative process first hand,” says Flatley, one of six Rowan students to receive $500 Caswell Scholarships, presented with large support from emeritus Political Science Professor Bruce Caswell. His DEA internship is unpaid.

“With Congressman Lance, I was able to see how the vast amount of networking drives legislation in the United States. But I’ve always had an interest in law enforcement and politics. Working in the federal building is amazing and the agents have been incredible. They’re always willing to answer my questions.”

Like D’Agostino, Flatley’s involvement with RIPPAC began with a resume writing workshop.

“RIPPAC definitely put me on the right path,” he says. “The institute allows students to delve into their passions and to open up their minds.”

Also a Caswell Scholar, Contarino, a junior environmental studies major, is interning with Philadelphia’s Penn Environment, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization. Currently, she’s communicating with officials, decision makers, restaurant owners, builders and other prominent citizens to gain their support for a “zero waste” initiative. The work involves making calls, crafting correspondence, and building relationships, she says.

“That’s what I want to do…build partnerships,” says Contarino, who aspires to work in issue advocacy in the environmental field. “I love the idea of building citizen support for issues.”

Florio’s talk at Rowan resonated with her, she says.

“He had a lot to say about the time we’re in, about protecting the environment, and about human rights,” says Contarino. “RIPPAC has been a great supplement to my education.”

With every guest speaker, networking event, or workshop, the institute’s goal is to get Rowan “citizens” interested and involved in the political process, says Dworkin.

“Politics is too important to be left to just political science majors,” Dworkin explains. “RIPPAC is multi-disciplinary because, regardless of your major, everyone has a stake in the political process. And Rowan students who have a better understanding of—and experience in—that political process are more likely to be promoted to leadership roles in their workplaces, not just in their communities."

Next up at RIPPAC

The 2019-’20 academic year will get off to a strong start when RIPPAC welcomes two prominent speakers to campus in October.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons (DE) will visit campus on Thursday, Oct. 10, while Gov. Phil Murphy will speak on campus on Tuesday, Oct. 22.

Visit RIPPAC’s web site to stay abreast of the institute’s events.