Symposium on public service

Government students attend Chuck Hagel’s conference at UNO


photo courtesy of Alyssa Watson

Nine students pose for a picture at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Chuck Hagel Symposium on Public Service. The symposium introduced them to different paths within the public sector and started a conversation on the importance of civic engagement. “I already wanted to go into social work, but the symposium helped me extend my knowledge on public service,” senior Alexis Bahensky said. “I barely knew what other opportunities were out there, and going to the symposium and hearing Chuck speak about how important it is really piqued my interest.”

Morgan Weir, Editor-in-chief

Current and former AP Government students piled on a bus and headed to the University of Nebraska Omaha for the Chuck Hagel Symposium on Public Service on Monday, Sept. 27. The all-day field trip was held to introduce students to the importance of public service and leadership. 

Social studies teacher Alyssa Watson brought nine students to the event and marked her fifth year attending. The group had the opportunity to hear from UNO alumnus, U.S. Army veteran, former U.S. Senator and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Later, breakout sessions, including sessions on journalism and news deserts, grassroots activism, writing, food, counterterrorism and more, introduced local high school students to a variety of public service-related topics. 

The day started out with a welcome from Joanne Li, UNO’s Chancellor, and a speech from the UNO student body president about the university’s opportunities for public service. Then, keynote speaker Hagel took the stage. He shared the story of his rise to political prominence, recounting his initial failed attempt at launching a political career that landed him to work in a California congressman’s basement. From there, he climbed his way up to become a U.S. Senator for Nebraska and was eventually appointed to the role of Secretary of Defense under the Obama administration. The speech gave students the chance to hear from someone who has made it to the top of the political totem and experienced firsthand the things they talk about in their government classes. Senior Nevin Butler appreciated the opportunity to learn from someone with experience in a field he is interested in. 

“I really enjoyed the part where he talked about his entrance into politics and explained every single step,” Butler said. “He started by working in a congressman’s basement just by reading their mail and he got all the way up to being a secretary and a senator, so I thought that was pretty inspiring.”

Hagel emphasized the importance of public service and civic engagement, especially for his young audience members. He encouraged them to share their voice and opinions with their representatives by writing letters, joining student council and organizing protests. After the speech, Hagel opened the floor to questions. Students lined up to ask about topics ranging from Hagel’s advice for students wanting to get into politics to his opinion on a potential World War Three. 

From there, students left the auditorium and headed to their first breakout session. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they had to stay with the rest of their school group and were not able to choose which sessions they attended. Millard West was assigned to professor Carson Holloway’s “Marbury v. Madison: Public Service and the Rule of Law.” The session provided a look into the landmark Supreme Court case which established judicial review. Participants discussed the connection between rule of law and public service along with the significance of the judicial branch.

Their second breakout session was hosted by social worker and professor Ciara Warden with a focus on mental health and suicide prevention during COVID-19. This was Warden’s first year teaching at the symposium. As a mental health specialist and suicide attempt survivor, she wanted to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and give students a space to share their feelings. During the session, they discussed suicide statistics and demographics, the importance of social work and media portrayal of suicide, including the popular show “13 Reasons Why.”

“Many students were open about how the pandemic impacted them personally, explaining how the social isolation was particularly difficult and the anxiety of the unknown was and still is frightening,” Warden said. “Younger people are experiencing the world in such a different way than most adults and if I can facilitate any discussion around mental health and suicide prevention, I hope that it makes young people feel less alone.”

While Millard West students talked with Warden, Watson attended a teachers-only session where she was able to have a conversation with Hagel. She and her colleagues from across the Omaha area asked Hagel about his take on current events and his advice for teachers. Among other topics, they discussed the withdrawal from Afghanistan and how to get students more engaged in politics and public service. It served as a rare opportunity for social studies teachers to get perspective from someone with unique experience in government. 

“We can ask him direct questions and he’ll give us his opinion on whatever we ask,” Watson said. “He is very transparent and doesn’t shy away from his opinions. I like that because as a politician sometimes they are saying what they think is socially acceptable and it’s very tailored and protected…and I feel like in those settings with us teachers he is just very frank and open. To hear that from someone higher up in politics and to get their perspective on different current events is a pretty cool experience for a teacher.”

The symposium introduced students to the diverse options available to them and started a conversation about the importance of public service. For the juniors and seniors who attended, it was a chance to learn more about potential career paths as they start to prepare for life beyond high school.