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Rep. Aaron Vega Shares "Political Reality" in the Classroom

As a State Representative, Aaron Vega (MA 5th Hampden District) is always up for a challenge. And he is always looking for ways to connect with his larger Western Massachusetts community.

This fall, Rep. Vega has combined both goals by teaching a course in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Massachusetts Legislature” explores the life of a legislator, from the campaign trail to the State House.

“A large percentage of our students are interested in state politics and so many have aspirations of running for office themselves,” says Brian Schaffner, Chair of the Department of Political Science. “Giving them a chance to learn from someone currently holding elected office was a tremendous opportunity.”

Vega says it is a learning opportunity for him, as well: “I have been surprised at just how informed the students are about local and federal issues…And I joke that they know more about Constitutional law than I do!”

Jokes aside, Vega’s class offers something the traditional political science courses do not: it allows students to extend and test what they learn in textbooks to the sometimes messy world of real-life politics. “I am showing these students what the reality is,” says Vega. The classroom discussions allow students to better understand how political theories play out and to realize the extent to which diplomacy, media, and complex laws affect the outcome of seemingly straightforward issues.

The class structure has also encouraged students to stay up-to-date on a number of current political events. “Each student has to follow a municipal election for the class,” says Vega. “That brings into the classroom issues important to everyone – job creation, health care, gun rights, minimum wage, for instance.”

As bills come before the legislature, Vega is able to discuss the pros and cons of each issue and even explore the process by which the bills either succeed or fail. In this sense, students get an inside look at political debates and the complex and ever-changing world of politics.

Vega is also using the class to expose students to a variety of public service roles. He has invited several politicians and public administrators to class including Rory Casey, his campaign manager and legislative aid; Alex Morse, Mayor of Holyoke; and Sarah Etelman, clerk of the South Hadley Selectboard. And he has pulled together a panel of reporters, bloggers, and others who deal with media and politics. “I think it is important for students to see politics from a variety of perspectives,” he says.

“Moreover, it’s always good for elected officials to connect with people and talk about why they ran, what they are doing, and why they are civically engaged,” says Vega, “Hearing real stories about ‘why and how’ adds a lot of value, and I am grateful to be able to share my story and insights with UMass students.”

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