‘President Biden’s First Year’ Course Features Candid Conversations with Prominent Leaders

Two Batten students say the new January term leadership course changed how they view both the presidency and policy in general.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, center, was one of several prominent leaders students got a chance to interview during a January term leadership course called “President Biden’s First Year.” (Illustration by Ziniu Chen, University Communications)
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, center, was one of several prominent leaders students got a chance to interview during a January term leadership course called “President Biden’s First Year.” (Illustration by Ziniu Chen, University Communications)

It was a brief comment from one of the featured guest speakers — almost an aside — but it stood out to Paulina Keim (MPP ’22). In response to one of her questions, the speaker emphasized the distinction between a candidate’s campaign platform, written in the heat of election season, and the policies they can advance once in office.

“I think it made me a bit more forgiving, because in Biden's platform, there were a lot of promises that I didn't feel were being kept,” Keim said. 

Hearing such distinguished guests speak frankly helped Keim better appreciate what happens behind the scenes under any presidential administration. 

“Sometimes changes aren’t visible to the public eye. That’s been a consistent theme in my policy classes — change can be slow, but it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor,” she said.

The conversation was one of many that made up a new January term course offered by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs and sponsored by the Batten School. Titled “President Biden’s First Year,” the class gave Keim and 11 other University of Virginia students the chance to interview a range of prominent leaders, including White House officials, journalists, nonprofit executives and members of Congress.

Keim, who will be starting a fellowship with the National Nuclear Security Administration this spring, said she enjoyed the passion and candor the speakers showed in those discussions. One speaker who formerly worked for the Department of Defense made an especially strong impression.

We asked her opinion on an issue, and she leaned in and said, ‘This is off the record, right?’” Keim recalled. “And then she was extremely candid with us. I was super surprised and refreshed by that.”

Lauren Cochran (BA ’22) was also taken with the candidness of the speakers, especially one former high-ranking official who spoke about her greatest accomplishments in office.

“That really stuck with me,” said Cochran, who aims to become a civil rights attorney. “You would think that it’s about sitting in the Oval Office and hearing experts, but actually sometimes it takes something smaller, like a hiring decision, to change the trajectory of an organization.”

Originally slated to take place in Washington, DC, the class moved online due to the pandemic, but students still found ways to connect in person. As soon as she returned to Grounds after the holidays, Keim started texting everyone in the course, eager to meet up and debrief about each class period.

That was how she connected with School of Commerce student Sambriddi Pandey. “She lives on the Lawn and I live on the Range, so one night I just walked over to her place and we just sat up until 3:00 AM talking about the conversations we had [in the course] and our own career paths and aspirations,” Keim recalled. It was the beginning of what Keim hopes will be a lifelong friendship.

Whether on Zoom and off, students and course guests focused as much on building human connections and professional relationships as they did on Biden’s first year in office. Many of the guests spoke about their own career paths and the role mentors had played in their lives.

Cochran said those conversations changed the way she thinks about mentorship in general. “Something that I’ve taken away from the course is that mentorship does not have to be partisan,” she said. “Ultimately, we all want to serve the public good, or at least I believe we do.”

But as Miller Center director Bill Antholis — who co-led the course alongside UVA faculty member David Burke — recently pointed out in an opinion piece published in UVA Today, bipartisan cooperation and unity have so far eluded the Biden administration. That issue was a popular topic among course guests.

“Something that was consistently brought up is that in order to project power abroad, we have to have good policy at home,” Keim said. “We have to be able to take care of COVID, to pass infrastructure bills, to secure our domestic foundation. I’m generally more interested in international relations, but I noticed that even the national security experts were talking about how important domestic policy is and how that shapes your projection as a leader across the globe.” 

Cochran also said that hearing course guests speak openly about the challenges of developing strong domestic policy, especially given the current political climate, pushed her to think about policy and governance differently.

“This course allowed me to see that there are many facets to a president’s success,” she said. It’s important to remember that Biden inherited a pandemic, an insurrection, and many other issues, she noted. 

“We have to think about the past and how those conditions affect the present,” Cochran said. “Context matters."

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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