From helping on campaigns to running for office, University students are making an impact in politics, often with the help of classes focused on the election process.

University alum Zachary Ackerman, who graduated in the fall 2015 semester with a political science degree, is indeed making an impact in the city of Ann Arbor. He ran for city office this past November and defeated four-term incumbent Stephen Kunselman, making him the youngest member of the council.

Ackerman’s age was an initial challenge during his campaign, but it forced him make personal connections with voters in order to gain their trust.

“I had to run a different campaign,” Ackerman said. “It was very grassroots. We knocked on 4,000 doors, and 2,000 of those were done by myself. I just had to introduce myself to the voters and prove to them this was something I have been passionate about for a long time and I will continue to be passionate about it.”

Ford School Prof. Rusty Hills , whose class — Elections and Campaigns — Ackerman took, said he advocates for students like Ackerman, who make political change. If there is one lesson Hills hopes students acquire from his classes, it’s that everyone can make a difference.

“One person can make a difference and that person can be a young person,” he said. “There’s no reason why a student at the University of Michigan can’t make a difference.”

Ackerman’s love for politics began as a high schooler in Ann Arbor. He said he was a nerdy 15-year-old boy, and he channeled his nerdiness into government and politics. In high school, he first began attending the Ann Arbor City Council meetings and he said “it kind of stuck.”  

His education at Michigan, he said, allowed him to grow in his love and understanding of politics. An introductory course on comparative politics with Political Science Prof. Andrei Markovits was particularly influential for Ackerman. The comparative nature of the class allowed him to realize the value of government systems outside of Michigan.

“And while this isn’t directly applicable to municipal government and my work on student council, it did give me a frame that there are practices that exist in other communities and that we can’t always look internally,” Ackerman said.

Additionally, interning with a congressional race in Michigan for credit instead of taking a class also helped fuel Ackerman’s political education. The action based learning, he said, was as important to him as his formal education.

“If you want to make a difference in your local community, your state or nation, you really have to dive right into it,” he said. “I think the greatest educational experience I’ve had has been working on campaigns or for elected officials. This class gave me a good excuse to do this.”

Along with Ackerman, University alum Travis Gonyou, who graduated in 2012, said his University education allowed him to get a greater understanding of politics that he used for his current job as a community outreach and communications manager at the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan. Gonyou said Political Science Prof. Arthur Lupia’s political persuasion class was especially formative for Gonyou, and inspired him to think about politics in a different way.

“It really changed the way I thought about the field of politics and what I could actually do in the realm of politics,” he said. “The research he presented was really inspiring. He changed the trajectory that I went on and I have to say it was influential as a mentor and advisor to me.”

Gonyou said his experience during the undergraduate research opportunity program also allowed him to think beyond what he believed to be the basis of politics.

“It was then that I started to realize that it wasn’t just about the difference in theory and what you see in political practice or learning about the actual structures,” Gonyou said. “But rather how our words and hand gestures portray a certain meaning within political debate.”

Gonyou said his Michigan education not only gave him career opportunities, but also helped him reach an extensive alumni network — especially since connections can have an influence on politics.

“It is incredible having an alumni network that is one of the largest in the world and of politically-minded and incredibly intelligent people who all are looking out for you,” he said. “I think that is a huge influence on the political world.”

Law Prof. Michael Barr also noted that the education at the University aids students in internships and post-grad life.

“One of my students from last year, Kate Fitzgerald, is currently an intern for the Clinton campaign in New York working on policy issues,” Burr said. “I think her strong analytic timing at Michigan has helped her be an effective writer and analysist and is helping her help the campaign.”

Hills said he has also seen numerous examples of his students succeeding in the political world, including former state Rep. Paul Scott, who chaired the House Education Committee during his term.

Overall, Ackerman said many details from his classes still resonate with him in his day-to-day career.

“There are some sound bites I still remember from Professor Hills,” Ackerman said, “Like be bold, which means knowing what you want and be willing to fight for it when it’s the right time. Also you can do as many things as you want, but you can only do one thing well. Which is an important perspective for a political leader.”

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