Justin Harding first enrolled at Southern Utah University as a business major. Fortunately, like many young students, he changed his mind.
Graduating in 2000 with a degree in political science and three months’ experience as an intern in Washington, D.C., Harding left Cedar City to begin a career with then Utah Representative Jim Hansen. Now, after working on Capitol Hill for 14 years, Harding returns to the Beehive State, as the newly appointed chief of staff for Utah Governor Gary Herbert.
With a résumé that includes experience as a legislative director, natural resources specialist and senior legislative assistant — for Utah Congressman Rob Bishop — Harding gives credit to his first internship with former Representative Hansen.
“When I returned to SUU following my internship, Representative Hansen’s offices contacted me and wanted me to return and fill a full-time position in his office,” explained Harding. “It was my internship that got me my first job; it’s what got me in.”
While the profession of politics can be a fickle field, Harding is not the only Thunderbird to mark recent high profile strides.
Mike Willden, a 1976 business graduate who for the past 40 years has been in state government and, most recently, director of the state of Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, was just appointed as chief of staff for Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval.
And following in the footsteps of these exemplary SUU alumni are hundreds more political hopefuls from all majors, thanks to an institutional focus on experience-based education that helps students pair cross-disciplinary aspirations and make valuable professional connections.
Such as 2014 theatre arts graduate Grayson Moulton, who was accepted into William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Moulton, who used his theatre degree to build valuable presentation and communication skills, gives full credit to SUU’s educational resources beyond the classroom for his forward progress from somewhat unconventional beginnings.
“Without the [Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service] on my résumé, I would never have gotten into law school,” stated Moulton. “The Center gave me the confidence to participate in student government and it created opportunities for me that went far beyond the bounds of school.”
In terms of support and outreach, it would appear SUU’s Leavitt Center is leading the way; SUU boasts a 90-percent law school acceptance rate among recent graduates.
The Leavitt Center is a non-partisan, interdisciplinary hub for politics across southern Utah. Beyond encouraging political engagement, the Center’s primary aim is to prepare students to serve as responsible and educated leaders in a democratic society.
Like Harding, Paige Gunn, came to college with plans to go into business, but work within the Leavitt Center altered Gunn’s path. Now on her second internship, as a lobbyist for SUU, and hoping for a third to intern at the state legislative session next spring, Gunn is aiming for a career in higher education administration.
“Politics impact every career, and I knew if I was more comfortable with governmental policy I would be better off in any job,” said Gunn.
Eric Kirby, current director of the Leavitt Center and former SUU student, says that perspective is right on track with the Leavitt Center’s objectives, aiming to give every interested student firsthand exposure rather than just theoretical discussion.
“Every student intern returns to the classroom with a newfound perspective on their role in society and deepened respect for their own potential impact," said Kirby.