Visit to Nation’s Capital Inspires Civic-Minded Undergrads

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Visit to Nation’s Capital Inspires Civic-Minded Undergrads

The Leadership UMiami program gives students a greater understanding of what community activism really means.
The Leadership UMiami program gives students a greater understanding of what community activism really means.
by Ashley A. Williams

LANDON COLES KEPT HIS EYES ON THE DOME OF THE U.S. CAPITOL AS HE APPROACHED THE GRASSY LAWN IN FRONT OF the home of the U.S. Congress. Once through the security checkpoint, the sound of ringing bells, signaling the day’s opening session, echoed off the white pillars and high marble walls. Coles was thrilled to be enveloped by the history inside. Since he was a child growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, he has been fascinated by American history, learning about everything from the exploits of George Washington during the Revolutionary War to the increase in women and minority participation in government service. It was his love of history and nation that prompted Coles to apply to Leadership UMiami, a program for University of Miami students who seek to hone their critical thinking skills to evoke positive changes at the University and beyond.

Student Leaders in Washington D.C.

The group met with U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-FL, who then escorted them through the cellar-like underground tunnels, leading them to the historic House Gallery, where they walked through doors and sat in seats overlooking the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Arguably, the greatest component of this trip was to expect the unexpected,” says Coles, a sophomore majoring in political science, referring to the five days he spent in Washington, D.C., as part of the Butler Center for Service and Leadership’s third annual Leadership UMiami program.

“The House floor was reminiscent of a high school social hour, with the representatives speaking loudly and animatedly with allies from near and far,” he says. “The only word to describe this surreal experience is gratitude.”

The immersive program began in the 2019 fall semester and concluded with the trip to Washington in January, where students learned from the vast knowledge of faculty, administrators, elected officials, alumni, and each other. Through in-depth sessions of self-discovery and reflection on the Coral Gables campus to interacting with Miami’s local community leaders and elected officials, the program allowed students to gain a deeper understanding of what community activism and engagement truly means.

“You can’t create change until you know yourself,” says Giovanni Sibilia, a junior in the program.

Andrew Wiemer, director of the Butler Center for Service and Leadership, says the purpose of the trip is to learn how to create positive social change on topics that each student personally cares about.

Dinora Orozco has embraced the topic of immigration and family separation, and has been following the policies that determine the future of those affected. Her passionate and personal connection to the topic led the senior, who is majoring in political science, to found Lucha Latina, a student organization that works to empower women of Central American descent on campus. She says she likes the work of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and was nearly moved to tears when she waved at the group while in the House Gallery.

“It’s people like her who are trying to make a difference that inspires me to be all that I can,” says Orozco.

The trip provided the students an up-close look at the work of D.C.’s decision makers. They explored Capitol Hill, met with leaders from NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and spoke with Jake Steel, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education.


People who are trying to make a difference inspire me to be all that I can.

—Dinora Orozco

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

“This experience has changed my mindset and has made me be more open-minded,” says Gustave, who added health management policy as a minor during the trip. “Just because I was going down one career path doesn’t mean that’s where I have to stay.”

Because of the Leadership UMiami program, Dianne 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 science and related study.

“This experience has motivated me to want to open a company of my own one day,” says 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.”

While in D.C., the students also visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture and networked with alumni, including Johnny C. Taylor Jr., B.SC. ’89, president and CEO of Society for Human Resource Management and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

For Stephen and others, seeing elected officials and alumni in action has “undeniably empowered” them to use their skills and voice to be future leaders of their communities.

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

Landon Coles

Arguably, the greatest component of this trip was to expect the unexpected.


 Illustrated Trees