When Trinity political science professor Juan Sepúlveda was called to serve on President Joe Biden’s transition team in late 2020, it was tempting for him to get caught up in the star power of the group.
Each new U.S. president, Republican or Democrat, relies heavily on a transition team to prepare staffing and priorities for federal agencies and offices under a new administration. Biden’s team, composed of more than 600 people, was stocked with “powerful, experienced” voices, Sepúlveda says. This group also contained more than 80 representatives from universities, including traditional academic powerhouses.
“You expect to see your Ivy Leagues, your Stanfords, big public schools, but I was one of the few folks coming from small liberal arts colleges,” Sepúlveda says. “And what I loved about this was ... that it gets Trinity in the mix as a national power, especially as you build relationships with people at the federal level who are now asking me, ‘Hey, I heard you are at Trinity—is it good?’ It just felt good to represent.”
Trinity would be hard-pressed to find a more ideal representative to send to the transition team than Sepúlveda, the Ron Calgaard Distinguished Visiting Professor of Political Science who has served in two previous presidential administrations. As part of the transition, from October 2020 to January 2021, Sepúlveda was placed on the Arts & Humanities agency review team. He led the public media agency review team, which includes presidential nominations for the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the organization that distributes the largest portion of federal funding to PBS and NPR. This was a perfect fit for Sepúlveda, who also served as a senior executive for PBS before launching his academic career.
“You get selected [for a presidential transition team] because you know the area. I’ve been in public media, and that’s a complicated, confusing sector,” Sepúlveda says. “I came in knowing about public broadcasting, radio, and local media organizations.”
But even shoulder-to-shoulder with national agencies and appointees, Sepúlveda says he was reminded of what makes Trinity special.
“Honestly, my time working with agency review teams felt similar to the type of community building that we do at Trinity,” Sepúlveda says. “Your group is small, close, connected. You take care of each other; you jump in to get stuff done together.”
In turn, Sepúlveda is taking this working knowledge back to Trinity, where it’s already making a difference for his students. Since coming to Trinity in 2016, Sepúlveda has taught urban education and local, state, and national politics at Trinity, as well as helped lead the University’s Latinx Leadership Academy.
“It was ironic to me that right at the time I was asked to join this presidential transition, I was actually teaching a course about campaigns here at Trinity,” Sepúlveda says. “And the last segment of that course was about transitions.”
So, Sepúlveda became one of the few professors in the country who can say they were able to ditch the textbook for real-time practical experience.
“Without leaking any information, the way I designed the final segment of that class changed completely once I had been part of an actual transition—the final became the real thing,” Sepúlveda says. “We had students basically preparing virtual versions of the real-life memos I had to prepare. They know now about handling budgeting and staffing, establishing priorities, and vetting potential political appointees. It was incredible to be able to tell my students, ‘We’re not making this up; this is the actual work you’ll do in the field.’”
Sepúlveda’s experience has also spilled over into his spring semester, where he’s teaching an urban politics course in addition to a Latinx leadership course. “Taking our students through all the various political structures, I can still talk about how the work we did on that transition team will have an effect across different agencies, such as the State Department or the Department of Education.”
Sepúlveda says the lessons taught by this practical experience are invaluable, regardless of a student’s political lean: “Whether folks are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, or anything in between, they’re telling me they just like the fact that my class can go beyond a textbook.
“I’m a big believer in my class,” he continues. “At Trinity, we don’t just say we’re developing critical thinkers, we’re pushing all students to see the other sides of various issues. Let’s say some students might be buying into a certain view—the classroom can be a great space to get them out of their comfort zones. We don’t just come into class and push ‘our stuff.’ We come in here and push each other.”
For all the practical knowledge he’s gained, Sepúlveda says that the events of the past year—a difficult one for the University and the nation at large—have compelled him to emphasize the idea of building community.
“This year, I’ve had great material, but I’ve also felt that I actually can’t just dive right into teaching without first just giving students a chance to voice what’s going on in their lives,” he says. “And my students are opening up about real stuff. Someone’s friend had COVID-19, another student was having a hard time with too many kids in their house, the WiFi wasn’t working, and all these things were going wrong. But giving ourselves the space to talk about these issues, that’s the beauty of Trinity. We’re a small space, and we can take care of each other that way.”