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70 Years of Innovative Experiential Learning in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Monument surrounded by cherry blossoms

Think of Washington at the end of World War II

By Gil Klein | In just a few years, it had gone from a sleepy, small city at the periphery of the nation and the world to the center of everything that was exploding - figuratively and literally - in the post-war years. And think of higher education at the same moment. With a booming economy and the GI bill, students were flocking to colleges and universities in record numbers. Higher education was turning into something not just for the rich and elite. It now encompassed the average person seeking to get a piece of the post-war economy.

An American University dean by the name of Harold E. Davis saw an opportunity for a new kind of practical education. He was part of a group of college deans and presidents who recognized the value of sending top students to Washington to get hands-on experience in how the city was shaping the nation and the world.

"Out of these discussions came the idea of a co-operative plan, called The Washington Semester," Davis wrote shortly after he had launched it. The object, he wrote, "is to give students direct contact" with government agencies and national and international organizations, "thus providing first-hand acquaintance with possible careers in public service as well as a better understanding of the realities of national life."

Seventy years later, that is still what the Washington Semester Program and the School of Professional & Extended Studies accomplishes - providing an experiential learning experience to give students the knowledge and direction to build on what they learn at their home schools to advance their academic and career goals. Now, as then, those students can count on full-time faculty, who not only have contacts with leaders throughout Washington, but also provide personal support while they are here and long after they are gone.

The first group of 24 students arrived from five partner schools - Alleghany, Hiram, Oberlin, Westminster and Wooster Colleges - for the spring 1947 term. With the success of that semester, more schools were added the second year - Birmingham-Southern, Dickinson, Lindenwood and Transylvania Colleges as well as well as Hamline and Denison Universities.

In its 70th year, 177 schools participate in the Washington Semester Program, and partners know that giving their top, motivated students a chance to study in Washington enhances their own programs. More than fifty thousand students of all ages have passed through the School of Professional & Extended Studies to catapult their careers in and beyond Washington D.C.

David Brown, Former Dean of the Washington Semester Program

While the basics of the program remain the same, it has evolved with the times to offer different types of opportunities in a wider array of academic pursuits and for different levels of students from freshmen to graduate. To tell that story, we turn to the one person who has seen it all: David Brown. He arrived at AU in the fall of 1962 as a freshman, and he even took a course from Harold Davis. After more than 40 years with the Washington Semester Program, mostly as its dean, Brown retired in 2011, but remains an advisor and close friend.

"I remember when I was in Harold's class, it was the fall of 1964," Brown said. "Hubert Humphrey was running for vice president, and his son was in the class. Harold Davis came from Hiram College. He was a very cultured man, a very learned man. In those days when he created it, The Washington Semester was only for American politics and government students."

In 1947, before television, cable news, the internet and social media bombarded people with information, the average American hardly knew anything about the inside workings of the government, Brown said. The original concept of the Washington Semester Program was to introduce students to people running the government and to give them an opportunity to use the city's vast resources to delve into a subject that fascinated them.

When he graduated from AU, Brown completed a PhD at Rutgers University, and then returned to American in the fall of 1971 as an Urban Affairs professor. The Washington Semester was still a small, elitist program aimed at a few private colleges. It was run by a professor named Nathaniel Preston, a Bostonian aristocrat from a wealthy family, who remembered Brown when he was a student.

"That was part of the reason I got the job," Brown said. "Preston said, 'if you work here, you will be a professor in Washington Semester. That's how it started."

Four Washington Semester Program students sitting in class

Birth of the internship

When Brown began as a professor, Washington Semester had about 90 partner schools, mostly from the Midwest and New England with a scattering in the South but nothing west of the Mississippi River. It offered three sections of American Politics, one of Foreign Policy and one of Urban Policy. But until the year before he arrived, the one thing it lacked -- that is now an essential part of the program -- is the internship.

In 1970, no one in academia had heard of internships, Brown said. Internships were something medical students did, not political science majors. Students could get part-time jobs on Capitol Hill or around town, but they couldn't get academic credit for them. Harvey Lieber, a professor of public administration, approached Preston with the concept. Why not add internships to Washington Semester? Preston didn't think much of the idea, but he grudgingly consented to give it a try. When the first internships started in 1971, "they were very much a stepchild of the program," Brown said. "There was nothing like it in Washington. Now look at how internships have taken over Washington. Harvey Lieber and the Washington Semester were pathfinders."

Brown takes over the program

In the spring of 1973, Preston moved up to be academic vice president, and he offered the job of director of Washington Semester to Brown. He said he would take it on one condition. Preston had kept it small and elite. Brown said he wanted to build it significantly. Several universities were on a waiting list to join, he said, and he wanted to take them in immediately. He wanted to cultivate other schools, and go on the road to recruit students and new institutions. With that, Brown did go on the road, and he never got off for nearly 40 years.

The key to Washington Semester's success is the faculty, Brown said. Many Washington programs hire adjuncts to offer classes to students here for the internships. But the Washington Semester offers full-time professors, who develop courses that draw on their expertise while constantly innovating to meet changes in their fields. Previous students count on them for help to write recommendations for jobs and graduate school, and incoming students often have heard about them and anticipate the experience.

Also, key to the program, he said, has been the work of Donna Chapman Williams, who is now the assistant dean of student services. Coming to work for Brown in 1978 as a work/study student, she has helped thousands of students make their way through a new city, a new school and new challenges in their lives.

"Once you have the Washington Semester model that is so successful, you can manipulate it into other areas," Brown said. "Economics? International Business? Justice and Law? Journalism? Sustainable development? Those were all new areas we initiated. Why not offer it to college freshmen as the Mentorship Program? Why not offer it to graduate students? Why not offer it as an international program? As the needs of higher education change, we have been able to change with them."

Here is a timeline of how the Washington Semester Program concept grew into the School of Professional & Extended Studies since Brown joined it:

Experiential Learning Through the Years

Washington Semester Program begins, offering extended resources to 24 second semester juniors studying political science, public administration, economics, and international affairs. At the time, attendees came from six partners schools including American University.

Development of the Mentorship Program that provides a Washington Semester-type of experience for first semester freshmen to get them started in college. Begun for incoming AU students, it quickly expands to other students seeking the experience before attending other colleges.

Launch of the Graduate Gateway Program (now called Graduate Professional Studies) that provides recent college graduates students an opportunity for one semester to take graduate courses while interning four days a week. By the end of the semesters, students know if they want to continue with their graduate education or use their internship to find full-time employment.

  • Creation of the University of Miami program. Miami President Donna Shalala, a WSP alum, agrees to send as many as 50 first-term freshmen and a professor to AU for a program similar to Mentorship.
  • In April the Board of Trustees approves the establishment of American University's 8th school with degree granting authority -- the School of Professional & Extended Studies (SPExS). Carola Weil, an international relations specialist and cross-disciplinary practitioner, is appointed its inaugural dean in September.
  • SPExS launches a new bridge program for non-native English speakers (now known as the English Language and Training Academy) and a series of test prep programs for graduate entrance exams.
  • SPExS launches its Graduate Programs and Online Learning division to support the needs of mid-career adult learners, which now offers six professional master’s of science degrees, seven professional graduate certificates, a leadership coaching certificate and an Adult Career Coaching Center.
  • American University’s Intercultural Management Institute moves to SPExS from the School of International Service. Although it closed its doors permanently in 2016, SPExS integrated intercultural management training into its core competencies.