Student success inspires optimism

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It’s still the first week of class here at UT as the fall 2010 semester starts. For students, there have been move-in days, welcoming ceremonies and the usual “settling down” angst. Parents have waved goodbye to their children with great hopes and grand visions of what the future will hold for their sons and daughters.

For staff, administrators and professors, it’s a time of getting over the usual humps of starting a new semester. For professors like me, it means getting classes organized and beginning the process of getting to know and working with new class members.

I believe other professors would agree that we enter our classrooms wondering about the future of our students. The news paints a bleak picture: School-related costs are increasing — I’m appalled at what the text for my pre-law class costs — and it would be easy to get bogged down with dread about the world into which my students will graduate.

What lifts my spirits, however, is looking at my new students while thinking about my former students. I feel so lucky to work with some of the most talented upper-class students at UT. Their future will include graduate school and participation in worthwhile endeavors such as Teach for America. Many will step into leadership roles, such as Christina Melton Crain, a former student who was president of the Dallas Bar Association last year.

For some, political experiences will be a part of their futures. In addition to students who have worked with Texas House and Senate members or with members of Congress, two have worked in the White House.

For example, my former student Scott McClellan had a key role in the Clayton Williams for Governor campaign and later served in the office of former Texas Governor George W. Bush, and then acted as press secretary for former President George W. Bush. His book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” includes a paragraph saying that my class was one of his UT favorites, which is gratifying.

But I laugh when I read his comments about my normal efforts to be evenhanded in class discussion and about how those efforts went off-track the day after Williams said to a group of reporters visiting his ranch, as clouds moved in and sprinkles began, essentially the following words: “Rain is just like rape. If you can’t prevent it, then you should just lean back and enjoy it.” I was outraged, as were my female students. I’m still glad Williams didn’t become governor and that Ann Richards won that position. Scott is now involved in a variety of worthwhile endeavors.

Another former student, Dilen Kumar, is currently working as Assistant White House Counsel for Nominations with a portfolio exclusively on judicial nominations. He and another student, Jesus Castillon, returned to campus last year to share their experiences with my students. Jesus is now with a Houston law firm working on a case related to the Madoff scandal, and Dilen was seen sitting behind Elena Kagan throughout her Supreme Court confirmation hearings this summer. By January Dilen will be working with a Dallas law firm.

Dilen recently wrote me after speaking with Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a White House reception commemorating Kagan’s confirmation. He said such moments “make you take a step back and realize how fortunate I am to be doing this job.”

Speaking to my class, each of them talked about the benefit of their all-out participation in campus leadership activities and organizations during their UT years. Dilen served on the board of the Eastside Community Connection and was involved in organizations including Student Government, Texas Blazers and Texas Cowboys. Jesus was the chair of Texas Revue and was involved in Student Senate and Texas Blazers. Both firmly believe their experience in campus leadership continues to serve them today.

Today I will meet my fall students. As I do, I’ll be thinking of a line I saw in a magazine recently that read, “Tomorrow begins today.” I’m confident that my students will have brighter tomorrows because of their experiences at UT. And I believe that tomorrow will be brighter for the U.S. and Texans because of the contributions my students will make in the future. I’ll be watching them with anticipation. I enjoy a sense of having invested in them and their accomplishments.

Weddington is an adjunct professor. Her class, "Gender-Based Discrimination," is cross-listed through the Center for Women's & Gender Studies, American Studies and Government. She was the first woman elected as a member of the Texas Legislature from Travis County, and she served in the White House as Assistant to the President of the United States under then-President Jimmy Carter.