Beyond 'Aha' Moments

The Virginia Policy Review, Batten’s oldest student organization, offers an ever-expanding space for people with differing perspectives to convene and converse.

Washington Post Supreme Court reporter Bob Barnes spoke about the Supreme Court’s ambitious agenda during a conversation moderated by Batten student Ethan Betterton (MPP ’22).
Batten student Ethan Betterton (MPP ’22), VPR managing editor, interviewed Washington Post Supreme Court reporter Bob Barnes at an event hosted by VPR earlier this semester. (Photo by Ben Leistensnider)

On a sweltering day in the middle of nowhere last summer, Charlie Bruce (MPP ’23) decided to go canvassing for water.

Bruce, who uses they/them pronouns, was hiking with their friends in rural New York. The group had run out of supplies, so Bruce channeled their past experience as a political organizer and started knocking on doors. 

Then—“This is going to sound a little bit like a horror movie,” they said, “but at the second house, a woman opens the door, and the house is filled with dolls. Tons and tons of dolls.” 

The woman was happy to give the friends a drink, however. Bruce started chatting with her and learned her story: She was a toymaker in Holland and had moved to the U.S. with her husband, who had died right before the pandemic. Thinking about her life alone in the house, “my heart went out to her,” Bruce said. 

For Bruce, the incident illustrates two things. One: They’ve lost all fear of asking strangers questions. Two: There’s value in having a conversation with someone who seems difficult to relate to—or even just sees things differently.

Both are insights Bruce brings to their new role as editor of the podcast Academical, which just released its first episode of the year. In down-to-earth, conversational interviews, Academical’s hosts ask a wide range of guests to discuss policy challenges they’ve faced, describe professional failures, and offer advice to their younger selves.

Academical is the official podcast of the Virginia Policy Review, the oldest student organization at the Batten School. After 11 years of publishing research, opinion pieces, interviews, and book reviews on public policy—contributed by both students and policy professionals—VPR is continuing to thrive. With a staff of nearly 50, the review has grown significantly even since last year, when only 30 students participated. 

“We have a lot of people excited, which makes me confident that VPR will continue to last,” said Marisa Lemma (MPP ’22), the review’s editor-in-chief.

Although the review began as a print journal, today it also encompasses the podcast, a blog called The Third Rail, and an annual policy conference.

“There is something for everybody. That's how I pitch it to people,” said Lemma. “We’re a multifaceted organization.” 

With so many different mediums at their disposal, last year’s editors made it their goal to engage more readers. Perhaps most notably, they revamped the review’s blog, moving from publishing lengthy treatises to more digestible, 800-word opinion pieces. The new cohort has continued to focus on reaching more people and diversifying their content, welcoming blog post ideas not only from staff, but from other students as well. 

The new editors are also increasing the organization’s visibility through in-person gatherings. This fall, the review hosted its individual guest speaker: Bob Barnes, a longtime supreme court correspondent for the Washington Post, spoke at the Rotunda for Batten Hour. Lemma is also pursuing a potential partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School for this year’s conference and has high hopes that it might be held in DC—another first for VPR.

Regardless of the medium or venue, the editors aim to feature writers and speakers with a variety of political viewpoints and areas of expertise.

“VPR is a good space to have nuanced dialogue about a range of issues,” said Ethan Betterton (MPP ’22), the review’s managing editor. “Sometimes our policy interests can be very narrow, so it’s important to hear those perspectives that you wouldn’t necessarily seek out.”

Bruce sees the podcast in particular as a place where those differing perspectives can meet in a way that is exciting and dynamic—and sometimes tense.

“In an audio interview, you can hear each pause, you can hear a person thinking about the question they’ve been asked. Sometimes, you can even hear them reject the premise of a question,” Bruce said. “It’s a way of taking in different narratives people have and hearing them interact.”

Bruce experienced that tension while recording the first episode of this year. To kick off the new season, they interviewed Batten’s dean, Ian Solomon. Knowing that he had a wealth of policy experience as the executive director of the World Bank under the Obama administration, Bruce was excited to tease out moments from his life that shaped his views on leadership.

But the conversation didn’t go as Bruce expected. Each time they asked Solomon to share a specific experience that shaped one of his core values, he gently and diplomatically rejected the premise of the question.

“He would say things like ‘It was just part of my evolution; there was no ‘aha’ moment,’” Bruce explained. “He’s very into the idea of weaving a larger tapestry. I kept wanting the ‘aha,’ and he kept saying, ‘No, you have to look at the big picture.’”

Eventually, Bruce realized that Solomon’s responses reflected his view of the world.

“He is someone who is constantly learning, and he wanted me to see that we don't ever arrive at a final point in our understanding,” Bruce said. “Learning is dialectical, and it happens continuously. It's not one watershed moment; it’s more like the process of talking.”

Just as it did with the toymaker from Holland, that process—the simple act of conversing with another human being—can allow us to move past our initial fears and hesitations, Bruce said. They had a similar experience with their fellow podcast editors when the group first met.

“We have very different political opinions, and we're interested in interviewing very different kinds of people,” Bruce said. At first, this ideological gap made Bruce anxious. “But when we listened to each other and shared ideas, I realized I was in a team of people who respected me. We could have a disagreement about something, and I felt like that would be okay.”

And it’s that enduring power of varying voices—whether in dissonance or harmony, in written words or audio—that underpins VPR as a whole. For Lemma, hearing and reading that range of viewpoints “helps me see the world less in black and white, to feel less like it’s either this or that,” she said. “You can learn a lot through that kind of exchange.”

Ultimately, the review offers readers, listeners, guests, and contributors an important opportunity to connect. “It sounds cliche,” Bruce said, “but when you actually sit down and talk with someone and recognize their humanity, it really does make the world a lot less scary.”

Virginia Policy Review is currently accepting submissions for its spring issue. To get in touch with the editors, email


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