Students Visit Harrisburg for Legislator Shadowing Program

by Diane VanDyke

As part of a new pilot program, four Montgomery County Community College  female students recently spent a day with women members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Harrisburg to explore careers in public service.

Last spring, the College hosted a legislative panel discussion, which was facilitated by Dr. Karen Stout, President, and featured Pennsylvania Representatives Madeline Dean, Kate Harper and Marcy Toepel, who shared their experiences as female members of the state Legislature. As a result of the discussion, the idea of a Legislator Shadowing Program was developed with a focus on introducing female students to career options in government.

Nationwide, only 1,784 women, or approximately 24.2 percent, serve in 50 state legislatures in 2014, according to data reported on the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. In Pennsylvania, there are 45 women, or about 17.8 percent, who serve in the legislature.

For the Legislator Shadowing Pilot, students Danielle Leonhardt and Gabrielle Scotti, both of Lansdale, Lavinia Soliman of Harleysville and Elizabeth Waddell of West Conshohocken, met with host Representative Marcy Toepel and Representatives Kate Harper, and Mary Jo Daley to learn about their careers, achievements, and experience.

During a roundtable discussion, the students also met with lobbyist Ashley DeMauro, Public Relations Coordinator Abbey Fosnot, Deputy Director Tricia Harris of the Governor’s Office of Public Liaison and Director of Special Events Kelly Fedeli of the Speakers Office, among others. Montgomery County Community College alumnus, Rep. Mike Vereb, who provided the conference room space for the discussions as well as lunch, also spoke to the students.

“The discussion was very informational and empowering,” said Soliman, who graduated from North Penn High School in 2013 and traveled in Europe for a year before starting at the College in August 2014. “They offered great advice about taking risks, pursuing your passion and working hard, which applies to all careers. It’s good to see other community college graduates in successful careers, too. I am so grateful for this opportunity.”

In addition to the discussion, students attended Rep. Harper’s Local Government Committee meeting, observed House and Senate sessions and received a behind-the-scenes tour.

“This was a special opportunity to help the students explore legislative careers by sharing our unique experiences as female legislators, including the work we do in Harrisburg and how past jobs have prepared us for our current positions,” said Representative Marcy Toepel. “Ideally, the shadowing program will add another dimension to what the students have been learning in the classroom.”

The new Legislator Shadowing Pilot is an extension of the Legislator in Residence Program that was started in 2012 by Executive Director of Government Relations and Special Projects Peggy Lee-Clark and Assistant Professor of Political Science Jodi Empol-Schwartz.

For the Legislator in Residence program, members of the Montgomery County State Legislative Delegation and their staffs are invited into Empol-Schwartz’s American National Government and American State and Local Government classes during each semester to provide a firsthand perspective of the concepts students read in their textbooks, as well as their personal experiences.

Prior to the guest lectures, students are required to research the background and positions of each legislator and develop questions for discussion. The program has prompted a number of students to seek internships in legislative offices, one of whom was later hired as staff. The program was expanded this fall to include new topics, and state legislators have been added to an Introduction to Economics class taught by Assistant Professor of Economics Jill Beccaris-Pescatore.

The Legislator Shadowing Program will be an ongoing opportunity for students to personally witness and better understand our state’s legislative process and the leadership roles of public servants. Students are required to submit an application with a brief essay about why they want to attend and how the experience could benefit their future education and career goals.

From left, Representative Marcy Toepel with students Danielle Leonhardt, Lavinia Soliman, Elizabeth Waddell and Gabrielle Scotti and Representative Kate Harper on the floor of the House of Representatives before the session started. Photo by Diane VanDyke

From left, Representative Marcy Toepel with students Danielle Leonhardt, Lavinia Soliman, Elizabeth Waddell and Gabrielle Scotti and Representative Kate Harper on the floor of the House of Representatives before the session started. Photo by Diane VanDyke

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