Students attend Cerrell Seminar in Sacramento

Thirty-two students selected by the Jesse M. Unruh Institute participated in the Joseph R. Cerrell Seminar in Political Leadership in Sacramento from March 5 to March 7.

The Cerrell Seminar, an annual spring conference sponsored and organized by the Unruh Institute, provides students who have demonstrated a significant interest in politics with an opportunity to meet with state’s leaders in politics, government and public policy.

Every year, students are selected through a competitive application process that consists of a written application with essays on topics that will be addressed during the seminar, faculty recommendation letters and prior political involvement.

Joseph R. Cerrell, longtime political consultant and the first director of the Unruh Institute, created the trip to Sacramento in the 1970s. Cerrell passed away in 2010, and the seminar was renamed in his honor.

In the past, the seminar was done in conjunction with other Southern California schools, but leaders from the Unruh Institute found that meeting with a political or government leader alongside 200 other students doesn’t allow for much personal interaction.

“We decided to separate from the other schools so USC students would be able to spend more time getting to know the people they are meeting with instead of just hearing speeches from them,” said Dan Schnur, executive director of the Unruh Institute.

Schnur oversees the entire program, but the Unruh Institute staff produces the day-to-day events included in the seminar. Laura Hill, deputy director of the Unruh Institute, has taken the lead in putting together the agenda and the program. Schnur has worked with most of the leaders invited to the seminar and asks them to participate and speak to the students.

Prior to leaving for Sacramento, the Unruh Institute held a session on campus to prepare for the trip. Last week, the students heard from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. In past years, they have heard from former California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Harold Steinberg, a law professor at UCLA.

This year students had the opportunity to interact with policy directors from both the Republican and the Democratic state senate caucus, the state’s chief legislative analyst, several political journalists who cover state government and state politics, several political consultants from both parties, a group of the state’s most influential female political leaders and a group of young political leaders who have already held substantial roles in politics and government.

The overall goal for the trip was to give students a chance to understand and learn about state politics and government directly from leaders who work within the state.

“First, we want the students not just to read about the state’s most important policy and political challenges, we want them to engage in conversations with the people who make those petitions,” Schnur said. “Second, we also want the students to be exposed to people who have succeeded in these fields.”

“My favorite part was getting to hear from the governor’s staff,” said Jenny Di, a sophomore double majoring in policy, planning and development and economics. “I really enjoyed hearing all the different roles that they played in helping the state of California run and all the different kinds of positions available to somebody who’s interested in politics and public policy.”

As a result of the connections they made during this short trip, students who have participated in the program have gone on to work in politics and government in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

“I think the best thing the seminar does is connect students to prominent leaders while teaching them and getting them more interested in politics and challenging them to think and to ask difficult questions,” said Nika Shahery, a sophomore double majoring in policy, planning and development and international relations.

Students also had a chance to network with policymakers during the dinner held on Friday night. All of the students and political leaders who participated in the panels come together over dinner. Each table is divided between students and political policy professionals and after every course, the professional guests switch tables so that the students get to meet as many of them as possible.

“It really gives you the opportunity to sit down at the dinner table with these top legislators and political figures in Sacramento one-on-one and sometimes in groups and get to know them on a much deeper level, both in terms of the professional context but also the social context,” said Eric Dubbury, a junior majoring in music industry. “It’s really a genuine time to network.”