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Alums offer C of I students glimpse to Capitol Hill life

Two dozen College of Idaho students sat inside Strahorn Hall, talking face-to-face with two C of I alumni who serve as staff members for United States legislators. Well, electronically face-to-face.

On the projector screen at the front of the room, David Bonine ’97 and Kyle Kunkler ’07 sat 2,400 miles away in a U.S. Senate office building in Washington, D.C. The Skype call allowed the students in Political Economy Professor Jasper LiCalzi’s class to get an inside glimpse of life in the U.S. Legislature and discuss their current reading assignment, Act of Congress by Robert G. Kaiser.

“How do you balance your own desires and opinions with your employers?” one student asked.

“You should never work with someone who you fundamentally disagree with,” Bonine said. “It would be a miserable experience to work with someone day-in and day-out who I thought was wrong.”

Luckily, Bonine, who has worked with U.S. legislators for eight years, doesn’t have that problem. He is currently the legislative director for Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, while Kunkler is a staff member for Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington.

When asked what a typical day in the life of a legislative staff member is like, both alumni said there really aren’t a lot of “typical” days. A lot of times, their workflow depends on what is being considered on the Senate or House of Representatives floor.

On a day when his boss has a committee hearing, Kunkler said he’ll normally have a few meetings and brief Newhouse on his assigned area of expertise. He’ll also sit in on meetings with Newhouse throughout the day, which starts around 8:30 a.m. and can go as long as 8 or 9 p.m. There can be receptions or dinners to attend as well.

Then there are the unexpected moments of the job.

A ride on the subway comes to mind for Kunkler, who found himself traveling from the Capitol one night with only two representatives, from differing parties, in his car. They were talking about plastic surgeries they’d had.

“It was the weirdest conversation ever,” he said.

“So plastic surgery is bi-partisan,” LiCalzi said.

But it’s the chance to be at the center of the United States’ political system—and to continually learn about new topics—that draws the attention of Bonine and Kunkler.

“I love my job,” Bonine said. “You get to work on just about everything, from national security to healthcare, and more. I get to open the newspaper, find a problem and take it to my boss and say ‘What can we do about this?’ ”

But what skills are needed to live the life of a legislative staff aid? And how did going to the C of I prepare these two alums for their careers, C of I junior Sydnie Kremin asked.

The College of Idaho does a good job of educating students on the fundamental issues of critical thinking and problem solving that employers look for, even on Capitol Hill, Kunkler said. His job requires a lot of creativity, and attending the C of I forces students to think outside the box.

Learning quality writing skills at the C of I was beneficial as well, Bonine said. In fact, it was his writing that earned him an introduction to the legislature on former Sen. Robert Byrd’s staff. Byrd asked him to write a Cicero-like speech on the Iraq war, on a one-day deadline, and Bonine was able to deliver. Kunkler agreed that being able to express clear thoughts in writing is critical.

“I would definitely say focus on and learn how to write really well early on,” Kunkler said. “That is something that I’d wished I had worked on earlier…”

“I wished you had too,” LiCalzi joked.

As the class period ended, students filed out having glimpsed life inside the nation’s capital from the perspective of two men who were once in their shoes, traversing the sidewalks of The College of Idaho.

“The best part about having these kinds of experiences is the students get to see, ‘Wow College of Idaho people can do that kind of stuff,” LiCalzi said.

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.