These Staffers Are Always on a Learning Curve

Posted March 24, 2010 at 4:02pm

For Whitney Stockett, a scheduler and office manager for Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), going back to school was a natural extension of classes she enjoyed in college.

A 2007 graduate of American University, Stockett took a year off from school when she first started working on Capitol Hill. She missed class, though, and her chief of staff recommended she apply to the Naval War College. Even though her degree will be in national security policy and strategic studies, Stockett has found that the classes help with her job now.

“I think a lot of people think scheduling is a very basic administrative job,” she said earlier this week. “And I think in having taken the classes on strategy and policy … I’ve learned to take a different approach to scheduling, kind of thinking more long term.”

Stockett, 24, is one of many Hill staffers who go back to classes while they work during the day. Juggling her class load and the hectic demands of the Capitol can be tough, but Stockett said the flexibility of the NWC program has made it easier. Now in her second year in the program, Stockett attends a class that meets Monday nights in the House Armed Services Committee room. The program also offers classes at different times and locations around the District, so if she misses a class, she can catch up on a different night. This week, for example, she missed her Monday night class because she was in the district, so she planned to make it up on Wednesday night.

That flexibility is important to 27-year-old Rob Goldsmith, too. A legislative aide in the office of Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Goldsmith is working toward a master’s degree in education at the University of Virginia’s Falls Church campus. He has class once a month from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The program was designed for working professionals, including mostly teachers, so students are allowed up to six years to finish the degree.

“I’m not really sure when I’ll be done,” said Goldsmith, a 2005 graduate of Carthage College who took his first graduate class in the fall. “I’m taking, like I said, a class at a time. If I anticipate work slowing down a bit, I might try to knock out two classes in a semester.”

Jena Gross, a scheduler for Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and a 2007 George Washington University graduate, will finish her master’s degree in political management at GWU this May. Gross, 24, said working on the Hill and taking classes in political management have been complementary. She cited a recent class on communications plans and lobbying Members for a cause added to the knowledge she has already gained as a scheduler.

Goldsmith has also seen his day job help his understanding in class. He handles education issues for Braley and helped write a bill on school nutrition. When he did a research project on childhood obesity for class, he used the Healthy Food Choices for Kids Act as an example of a potential solution. Recently, he gave a presentation to fellow students about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

Though Congress doesn’t offer financial incentives for staffers to go back to school, all three students said their bosses have been supportive of their ongoing education and have been willing to work with their schedules. It doesn’t hurt that BlackBerrys allow staffers to accomplish a little work even when they’re in the classroom or that Members themselves often have advanced degrees.

Wittman “has a Ph.D., so he’s very highly educated himself and is very much supportive,” Stockett explained. Braley, too, has a law degree.

Counterintuitively, continuing education is not necessarily about moving ahead in their careers, each of the students said separately. All three insisted they want to use the knowledge they gained in their current offices even after they graduate.

“Right now I really like my job, and I’m very content where I am,” Gross said. “I plan to stay here after I graduate.”