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2023 Washington D.C. Trip with PUBPOL 155 & 301

April 6 - April 8



Duke in DC
1201 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004 United States

Event Sponsored By

Sanford School of Public Policy
Polis: Center for Politics

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Students from Duke University pose for a photo on the Navy Steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Friday, April 7, 2023. (Official White House Photo by Yash Mori)

From April 6-8, Professors Deondra Rose and Manoj Mohanan took students from PUBPOL 155 (Public Policy Analysis) and PUBPOL 301 (Political Analysis for Policymaking), as well as members of the Polis Student Committee, to Washington D.C. Students were able to visit the Capitol and the White House, as well as meet with Duke alumni and the nonprofit organization Braver Angels.

Alumni Mixer

Photo of Alumni at Duke in DC Office

Politics and Policy Briefing Session with Professor Asher Hildebrand

Photo of Professor Hildebrand at Duke in DC Office

Professor Asher Hildebrand tested the students’ civic and political knowledge during a policy briefing session before they embarked upon the White House and the Capitol. Students were given a crash course on the structure of Congress, the legislative process and decision-making influences, the structure of the Executive Branch, policy implementation, and budget and appropriations.

White House Panels

Group Photo in Indian Treaty Room

During our time on the White House campus, students were granted access to the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Here, in the location of the first televised presidential press conference under President Eisenhower, students heard from key figures from the National Security Council and the Biden Administration, a number of whom are Duke alumni.

Photo of 1st White House panelThe first panel included Cara Abercrombie, Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Defense Policy and Arms Control at the National Security Council; Caitlin Durkovich (Duke ‘94), Deputy Homeland Security Advisor for Resilience and Response at the National Security Council; Elizabeth Kelly (Duke ’08), Special Assistant to the President, White House National Economic Council; and Nicholas (Nick) Klinger, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. Amanda Mansour, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Partnerships & Global Engagement at National Security Council, moderated the discussion.

Panelists described their pathways to serving in the White House and the State Department. All agreed that the pathway to public service is rarely a linear one. Moreover, their nonlinear pathways provided each of them with a broad range of skills and experiences that they continue to apply today. Abercrombie asserted that the ability “to become a super generalist” is essential. Durkovich argued that her expertise is broad because she was willing to try new things – delving into cyber security, infrastructure, physical security, non-profit work, and more. Offering valuable advice to students she said, “Don’t be afraid to be a risk taker, it will all pay off in the end.” Abercrombie agreed, imploring the students to take advantage of the flexibility and opportunities that they have in their current roles as students.

The value of undergraduate education emerged as a powerful theme in the conversation, and the panelists all agreed that strong writing has been an essential skill in their careers. Kelly noted that writing crisply and clearly was an invaluable skill she took from her education at Duke. She also recalled that the Duke Political Union taught her how to bring together opposing viewpoints. Abercrombie echoed this emphasis of the valuable of education, reflecting that her liberal arts education challenged her and her fellow classmates to put themselves in the shoes of others and to avoid “groupthink.” Klinger advised the students to take advantage of opportunities outside the classroom as a mechanism for cultivating relationships, building bridges, and developing valuable soft skills. Driving home the significance of building strong relationships for public service, Mansour asserted that a career in government is all about partnerships and multilevel diplomacy.

Panelists offered insight into what sparked their desire to pursue public service and the significance of this career path. Kelly’s interest began after Hurricane Katrina hit her hometown only three days after her move to Duke. The government’s response to the disaster showed “where public policy can get it right and get it wrong,” she argued, and “how public policy can have such a tangible impact on Americans daily lives.” Summing up the significance of his career in public service, Klinger described public service as a journey, one that has “given me more than I can ever give back.”

Photo of 2nd White House panel

The second White House panel included Stefanie Feldman (Duke PPS ’10), Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to the Domestic Policy Advisor; Colonel Joseph (Joe) Funderburke Ph.D., Director of Strategic Planning at the National Security Council; John Keith, Senior Director for Cyber Policy at the National Security Council; and Jake Phillips, Deputy Counsel to the President and Legal Advisor to the National Security Council. Brent Robinson, Special Policy Advisor and Director for Partnerships & Global Engagement, National Security Council, moderated the discussion.

Like the first panel, panelists described nonlinear pathways to the White House. Phillips highlighted the various career paths he took, including working at think tanks, law firms, on Capitol Hill, and at the Department of Justice. Keith asserted that “people who do well here have a broad range of experience.” He shared that by the time he reached 50 years old, he thought he had missed his opportunity to work in the White House. However, he reassured the students, your career path is often a “winding road” instead of a straight shot.

Feldman credited her public policy education at the Sanford School with helping to launch her career path. “There is so much you can learn from Sanford that can help you prepare for a role in government.” She stressed the value of internships for helping students better understand certain processes that cannot be taught solely in a classroom.

The panelists gave students valuable advice for making the most of their time at Duke University, including encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity to develop strong skills in writing, note taking, public speaking, and networking. Phillips encouraged students to “get to know the people you are with,” including classmates, professors, and colleagues, as these relationships will often open doors. Keith highlighted the importance of mentors and advised all of the students to take a class in public speaking and to learn to “write with brevity and clarity.” Colonel Funderburke agreed, encouraging the students to “be compelling and convincing” when relaying the facts; and “take emotion out of technical writing.” Expanding on this idea of the role that emotion plays in effective communication, Feldman noted that “emotion can be a powerful tool”—but only if used strategically.

Helping to put students’ time in Washington into perspective, Colonel Funderburke encouraged students to consider the panel’s advice with an eye toward the big-picture: “Don’t listen to us and think you don’t have it figured out.” Offering final words of wisdom he said, “Do well at what you are doing now….Get good grades, do well at your first job, maintain contacts with mentors, be a good person…[and] do not be afraid to communicate your ambitions.”

Braver Angels Debate

Group Photo of Braver Angels Speakers

During the trip to Washington, D.C., students participated in a respectful conversation over the issue: “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?”

Braver Angels debates are not competitive, but a collective exercise in civil discourse. Conducted in a light parliamentary format, they teach students to engage respectfully around difficult and divisive issues. Students think together, listen carefully to one another, and allow themselves to be touched and even changed by each other’s ideas. Participants walk out with greater empathy, tighter community relationships, and appreciation for diversity of thought.

Angelie Quimbo at EEOB
Angelie Quimbo (’26)
“One of my favorite take-aways from this trip was to experience another Braver Angels debate…As a former policy debater, I was happy to note that the atmosphere was anything but competitive. Students considered each point that was presented, and by the end of the debate, everyone had a revised view of the topic. And that’s the beauty of a Braver Angels debate. Instead of competing or attacking a particular view to present a ‘winner,’ students are working together to build a middle ground.”

Click here to read her full reflection on the trip.