OIEP Celebrates 2 Decades of Cole Scholars


Courtesy of Michael Parkin

Rihanna Rey, OC ’12, marches in support of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan at a campaign event. The Cole Scholars program provides an avenue for current Oberlin students to work on political campaigns.

Jackie McDermott, Sports Editor

Oberlin College will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics this weekend with two days of guest speakers, panels and the return of Cole Scholars alumni.

The OIEP was founded in 1994 by Richard and Dorothy Cole, both OC ’56. The self-defining nonpartisan initiative aims to “encourage Oberlin graduates to run for and serve in public office.”

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, OC ’92, the mayor of Baltimore, will present the keynote address “A Life in Politics” this Friday at the start of the 20th Anniversary Celebration.

After graduating from Oberlin, RawlingsBlake became the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore city council and later became secretary of the Democratic National Committee and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. As mayor, Rawlings-Blake has worked to grow Baltimore’s population and eliminate the city’s structural deficit.

Professor of Politics Paul Dawson remembered Rawlings-Blake’s enthusiasm for public service in her Oberlin days.

“She always wanted to serve; we didn’t have to teach her how to serve,” said Dawson.

On Saturday, the OIEP reunion will host State Senator Gayle Manning of Ohio’s 13 district, which encompasses Huron and Lorain counties. Later, author and professor Gary Jacobson, who specializes in the study of congressional elections, will speak about the 2014 congressional races.

Also on Saturday, two panels of Cole Scholars will present “From Oberlin to Politics” and “Campaign Finance.” These alumni now work in diverse areas of public service, including nonprofit work, press for the federal government, judicial work with the Ohio Supreme Court and policy analysis and research. Around 50 of the Cole Scholars program’s 200 alumni will be returning to Oberlin for the celebration.

The 20th Anniversary Celebration weekend will conclude with the 2014 Cole Scholars presenting their insights from the campaign trail. Michael Parkin, associate co-director of the OIEP and assistant professor of Politics, hopes students and alumni will benefit from the insights of the speakers.

“[I am] looking forward to the questions that
are asked of these speakers,” said Parkin.
Parkin and OIEP co-director Associate Professor of Politics Eve Sandberg worked with President Krislov and his staff to book the event’s speakers. The welcoming committee that helped plan and promote the event was chaired by Poy Winichakul, OC ’11 and founder of the political nonprofit LaunchProgress, and Matthew Kaplan, who has worked as a visiting Politics professor at Oberlin and as the Appropriations Associate of the U.S. House.

The Cole family began the OIEP two decades ago because of a growing dissatisfaction with the world of electoral politics; they believed Oberlin students could do better.

“[The Cole family’s] motivation was to have Obies get into politics because they were a little frustrated [with the status quo]. … They thought that Oberlin students had a quality of being thoughtful, caring and hardworking,” said Parkin.

Today, the Cole family endows the Politics department to provide grants for alumni to take workshops to develop their campaign skills and for teachers to attend conferences related to Politics courses. The OIEP also maintains an online alumni network that connects friends of the OIEP with job and volunteer opportunities.

While voter outreach and creating original workshops are part of the OIEP’s stated mission, the initiative puts more focus on assisting politically active alumni, bringing speakers to campus and funding Cole Scholars’ internships.

Since 1994, 200 Cole Scholars have served in eight-week summer internships all across the country with campaigns that range from presidential to local, as well as with major consulting firms. Cole Scholars have worked for such political heavyweights as Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Barack Obama, and in such prestigious places as the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the White House. More recently, four 2014 Cole Scholars worked in highly publicized senatorial races for Al Franken, Michelle Nunn, Kay Hagan and Alison Lundergan Grimes.

In the spring semester, Parkin teaches a class that prepares Cole Scholars for their internships with literature on campaigns and elections. He then teaches a seminar the fall after their internships where students reflect on what they have learned and write capstone papers.

Parkin said the 2014 group had particularly high-profile assignments.

“This year has been really fascinating,” said Parkin. “A lot of them worked on very prominent Senate campaigns.”

College junior and Politics major Ziya Smallens said the real world experience of working for

Alison Lundergan Grimes’ Kentucky campaign helped him clarify his career aspirations, which is part of the goal of the OEIP program.

Smallens’s Cole Scholars internship turned into a full-time paid position when he was hired as a field organizer. This experience showed Smallens that he wants to work on communications in politics.

“I still very much like communications, and the rush of a race is awesome,” said Smallens.

Dawson said Cole Scholars benefit from realworld experience.

“[Cole Scholars apply their political skills in a] more realistic, less academic, real-world setting,” said Dawson.

Throwing college students into an entirely new political environment can present some challenges. Smallens, a New Yorker, said he did not blend in at his Kentucky position.

Parkin, however, said he believes that immersion in a new environment is beneficial for students.

“[The Cole Scholars internship is often] the first time any of them are living on their own in a foreign city and working full-time in a high-pressure office setting,” said Parkin. “They do remarkably well and thrive.”

Dawson cautions that Cole Scholars must remember that they have to build up a portfolio of service following their Cole Scholars internships before they can become successful public servants.

“[After the internship, students have] made important contacts, seen important things, but they might get the wrong message; they might conclude that [what’s important is] how to run, not how to serve,” said Dawson.

Parkin noted that another obstacle in the Cole Scholars model is that the majority of the participants are Politics and Economics majors. He hopes to market the program to students in majors outside Politics.

“We’ve had people with Biology majors,” said Parkin, “and they’ve enjoyed it just as much as Politics majors.”