Political Science: Much More than Campaign Trails

Two Central College alumnae share their time working to make the world better with political science degrees. 

Commencement bridges the future for Central students between great experiences on campus and their careers. From left: Whitney Longnecker ’09, Carol Mendez ’09, Erinn Lauterbach ’09 and Stephanie Uthe ’09.

Erinn Lauterbach ’09 came to Central College focused on becoming an attorney. Her doors of opportunity provided a different career route to becoming an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. 

The Road to Academia

Lauterbach uses the great experiences that she benefitted from at Central. She now instills in her own students the knowledge of how the political world impacts them and, equally important, how they can impact the political world. 

Lauterbach loves being a professor. “It’s a good mixture of doing research and teaching,” she says. “These are the two things that I really wanted to do when I decided to go to graduate school. I like conducting research because I can create knowledge. I basically get to look at the world around us, ask questions about what I observe and then answer those questions.” 

She explains that her job is being a lifelong learner. “I learn more about the topics that I teach as I prepare for classes. I also learn tons from the students when I’m in the classroom,” she says.  

Lauterbach is grateful her college experiences guided her in a different direction. 

“Two big influences at Central put me on this path,” she shares. “One is the professors. I was a psychology and political science double major. In my first year, I took a psychology course that sparked my interest in research. I started taking political science courses and I liked those the most.” 

The second big influence was Andrew Green, director of institutional research and former professor of political science, who worked with Lauterbach and introduced the idea that being a professor could be a career for her. 

While at Central Lauterbach studied abroad twice. In London, England, she interned with the British Parliament and the office of Jeremy Hunt. 

“This experience taught me that government could be interesting,” she says. “I grew up in Iowa with political campaigns always coming around. But I didn’t really understand the government. Working in the British Parliament opened my eyes.” 

She also spent a semester in Granada, Spain, to challenge herself. “I learned that I could do things outside my comfort zone and even thrive in those situations,” she says.  

Teaching to Make Change

She looked back on her international experiences as she created the learning environment for her students.  

“I not only want them to understand the content, but I want them to think about how they can inspire the world around them. They can participate in government,” Lauterbach says. 

She wants them to understand the content and to think about how they’ve learned what they’ve learned. Lauterbach inspires them to participate in the system when they see things they don’t like or encourage those things that they feel should continue to

“Engaging students to be citizens is critical,” she says. “I think American politics and what we talk about in class every day is important for the students. Government affects most aspects of our day-to-day lives in ways we don’t even think about because the government is so ubiquitous. It affects how we do our grocery shopping, whether potholes on the roads are fixed, and the safety of universal plug-ins so we can plug our phones into the walls and not worry whether the electricity will fry the device.”

Lauterbach teaches classes about governmental institutions, Congress, bureaucracy and how decisions are being made in those spaces. Her research focuses on better understanding how policymaking happens. Her teaching and research look at representation and its impact as well as the separation of powers in the federal government. 

Teaching political science in a polarized environment is difficult. Like other political science academics, she explains that the country has been polarized for decades but the past eight years have been harder. 

“I try to be open with students. There are facts and opinions and biases,” she says. “We all have biases. I explain to students we have different opinions and that’s okay.”

The classes Lauterbach teaches focus on how government works. Her classes create a space to talk about this and opinions on how things work. She works to help students understand the difference between opinions and how government structures work. Students can have opinions about the process and then debate whether or not they can make changes for the better.

Lauterbach started teaching at the University of California, Riverside. The student body at UC Riverside is one of the most diverse in the country. The majority of students come from underrepresented groups. In contrast, Villanova is a private Catholic university. Lauterbach explains the students from these schools are wildly different in their experience with the government. 

“In class, we focus on issues, not people. Students can be scared to talk about things because they don’t want to be judged for their opinions on either side of the political spectrum. Once you make a welcoming atmosphere and the students understand that people aren’t judging them, then we can talk about the issues.”

Life-long Learner

Lauterbach loves to learn. Following graduation, she completed a one-year AmeriCorps State commitment with the Family and Children’s Council in Waterloo, Iowa, working with a sexual assault prevention program.  

She then moved to Washington, D.C., to work for former congressman Bruce Braley, representative of Iowa’s first district. Lauterbach admits, “I was young, working 24/7 on Capitol Hill for barely any pay. It was fun and I learned about how legislators change laws.”

After working on the Hill for two years where Lauterbach learned the delicate intricacies of governing in an institution of representation, she started graduate school at the UC Riverside in 2012. She earned a master’s in 2015 and a Ph.D. in June 2020.

Carol Mendez ’09 and Erinn Lauterbach ’09 share a day of sunshine and great memories during their senior year at Homecoming 2008.

Lauterbach gladly admits that Central prepared her for graduate school and research. She explains that her graduate classes were similar to classes at Central. She was the only person in her cohort who had attended a private, liberal arts college and had highly interactive classroom experiences. The courses and learning environment at Central were very similar to what Lauterbach experienced in her graduate program at UC Riverside.

From California, she completed a two-year post-doctorate study at the University of Virginia at the Center for Effective Lawmaking. Lauterbach leaned into her love of research and began a project that’s been ongoing for about three years. She is updating widely used scores and political science research related to Congress, called the Legislative Effectiveness Scores. These scores are based on 15 metrics regarding bills that each member of Congress sponsors and how far the bill moves through the lawmaking process, as well as other measures. 

“The biggest thing that I learned at Central was how to learn,” Lauterbach says. “I was very prepared for graduate school compared to my cohorts. That training on how to learn helped me in every job I’ve had.” 

“Being in an atmosphere where you’re in small classes, where your professors care and you focus on your education, means that you’re getting all you could possibly get out of it,” Lauterbach says.

Serving Others Is Bigger than Ourselves

Holly Schaffter Chari ’99 headed to Central unsure of what she wanted to do but had a strong desire to help people. She just wasn’t sure how to best use her skill sets and strengths. She now serves as an attorney in the Office of General Counsel to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

The VA operates 171 medical centers across the country with over 1,000 outpatient clinics serving approximately nine million of the 25 million veterans in America.

“The work and our mission is near and dear to my heart,” Chari says. “It’s for my husband, all of the military members serving and the friends, acquaintances and connections that we’ve made over 20-plus years in the military community.” 

In September 2022, Holly Schaffter Chari ’99 (right) and her husband U.S. Air Force Col. Raja Chari, NASA astronaut, spent the day at Central discussing their careers with students and the community.

She’s married to U.S. Air Force Col. Raja Chari, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronaut and commander of the NASA SpaceX Crew-3 mission. The couple has three children. Chari spoke to Central students and guests about his experience when he was stationed at the International Space Station in February 2022. The couple came to campus in September 2022 to talk with students and share their professional and familial journeys. 

Her passion for her work comes from the Central vision that service to others is a calling bigger than themselves. People often focus only on their sliver of the world. Being married to an astronaut gives her life a different perspective.

“Raja said it well when he explained the view from the International Space Station,” Chari says. “When you look down on Earth, you realize how magnificent and fragile it is. We’ve been entrusted to care for it and its people.” 

“I always had a strong interest in governance,” she says. “I have always believed it is paramount for people to understand their rights and responsibilities, whether at their local, state or federal level.”

“I was attracted to the practice of law by this natural connection with governance and the potential to really affect change in both small- and large-scale ways,” she shares.

In her position, Chari focuses on the enactment of laws, regulations and policies. Some of her work includes legislative proposals for the Department of Veteran Affairs to Congress. She works with clients in the Veterans Health Administration writing proposals intended to improve patient care services. 

Her office provides technical assistance on proposed bills and is largely responsible for developing regulations. Once a bill becomes law, it is common for the VA to develop rules or regulations. Once the final regulation is published, Chari helps the VHA establish national policies and procedures designed to further implement the VA’s authority at the facility level. 

 “Our team at the VHA is innovating new methods, ideas and approaches,” she says. “That’s what I find so incredible about working at the federal level. We are making a difference in people’s lives on a large scale. That aligns with Central’s mission.” 

Finding her path through Central

The journey from Central to the Houston, Texas, area where Chari currently lives has taken many twists and turns. She has moved nine times in 14 years.

Chari’s college days were filled with much soul-searching and fun. She considered health sciences her first year on campus. But, after she and her college roommate, Katherine Walstom Bayens ’99, mistakenly melted a rack holding a set of test tubes in the enclave as part of a microbiology lab, she had second thoughts about health care and decided to stick with a political science major. She also spent a year in the education program and says she still has aspirations of teaching someday because of her teachers and professors. 

Keith Yanner, professor of political science, had the greatest influence on her interest in political science, policy and governance. She also enjoyed taking classes with Jim Zaffiro, professor of political science, Jon Witt, professor of sociology and Donald Maxam  and Dale De Wild, emeritus professors of sociology.  

“As an attorney, I never really saw myself as a litigator,” Chari says. “I’m interested in different forms of conflict resolution like mediation. I attribute my interest in conflict resolution to Professor De Wild and the sociology class I took from him that explored the different types of conflict resolution models. That foundation has proved instrumental in my practice of law and in my current role at the VA.” 

Chari studied in London, England, in her second year and interned with the Future of Europe Trust, based in the House of Commons – an experience that taught her about geopolitical challenges facing Europe and expanded her knowledge of international relations. On campus, she represented her peers on student government and served for a time as president of the Campus Activities Board. 

“The wonderful thing about Central is you have the opportunity to explore, to take a diverse class load that enables you to determine your likes and dislikes as well as your strengths and weaknesses,” she explains. “I figured out how to best use those skills to serve people. That’s what led me to the field of law.” 

Holly Schaffter Chari ’99 (left) choose a career with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which allowed her to move frequently with her husband who advanced through the Air Force to become commander of the NASA Space X Crew-3 mission

The Military Way of Life and Learning

Chari quickly learned and began living the military family life when she graduated from Drake University Law School. She married her high school best friend, Raja, in 2002, after graduating from Drake. During their first year of marriage, they lived separately – one in Sioux City, Iowa, and one in Boston, Massachusetts.  

While she was in law school, he was earning his master’s in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I accepted a judicial clerkship following graduation and moved to Sioux City, Iowa. That was an incredible experience and helped me hit the ground running, opening some opportunities for me, especially as I faced the reality of moving frequently with my husband’s military posts,” she explains. “Raja could finish his pilot training for the air force, and I could work and enhance my legal education. We both spent that year preparing for our careers. I passed the Iowa bar.” 

Their military travels as a couple began when they moved to Goldsboro, North Carolina, for Raja to finish his F15 E Strike Eagle training. Holly interned at a small law practice because she was not licensed in North Carolina. 

After Raja graduated from pilot training in North Carolina, he was assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. 

“The two kids from Iowa were heading to Alaska — a place we’d never been. We were excited, nervous and preparing to purchase our first home. It was an incredible experience,” Chari says. 

Once in Alaska, she sat for the Alaska Bar Exam. Chari accepted a position as an assistant attorney general. 

She worked in the Health and Human Services Division representing adult protective services, supporting the safety and care of adults, particularly elderly individuals. 

“That’s where I felt a calling to work – where I could help people,” she says. “I represented the social workers from APS in guardianship and conservatorship proceedings in Anchorage, as far south as Kodiak and up north in places like Bethel, Nome and Barrow, including several smaller Alaska Native Villages.”

She also represented the clinicians at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute on behalf of the attorney general’s office for involuntary commitment proceedings.

“It was a difficult and, oftentimes, heart-wrenching experience. It was shocking and eye-opening to learn the pain that humans inflict on others, especially their loved ones,” Chari admits. 

“We worked to both prevent the problem from starting and stop the problem from existing,” she says. “I worked with adult protective services to protect those vulnerable adults who were being taken advantage of either physically, mentally, emotionally or financially.”

Chari had the opportunity to learn about many different cultures and ethnicities. She participated regularly in court proceedings telephonically, especially in distant, smaller locales. Translators helped Chari serve the diverse populations. She represented APS in proceedings to protect all Alaskans including vulnerable adults from the large Alaska Native population, Russian, Hmong and Asian populations that live in the state. 

“It was a fascinating opportunity to learn more about people and their window into the world. I grew a lot as an attorney there. It was definitely trial by fire,” Chari laughs.  

Military Moves and Twist Career Paths

In the military, moves are referred to as a permanent change of stations. The next PCS was to the Royal Airforce Lakenheath. The couple moved to Bury St. Edmunds, England. 

“The move was devastating to me professionally because I couldn’t practice law and that presented a challenge. But as one door closes another one opens. I had to change my mindset. For the first time I felt like part of the military spouse community,” she admits.

Chari joined the military spouse club on base, a non-profit, social/welfare private organization that supports spouses by organizing social events and providing education about military life, base resources and local services. During their time there, Chari interned with the legal office on base. 

They were stationed in England for about six months when Raja was selected to attend the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. They packed up and returned to the States where Holly began looking for jobs.

“I quickly learned from our time in England, that as you progress in the military your duty stations become shorter,” she says. “I decided to pursue federal government jobs which would allow me more flexibility.”  

“For federal attorney positions, I would only need to be licensed in one state and I had my law licenses in both Iowa and Alaska. In 2008, I accepted a position with the VA in the Office of General Counsel, Health Care Law Group,” Chari says. 

They spent a year in southern Maryland for her husband’s test pilot training, then moved to Valparaiso, Florida, for Raja’s next assignment at Eglin Air Force Base.

“As you can imagine, this posed a challenge for my employer; it was pre-COVID-19. I approached them about working remotely in my current position. They understood thus, allowing both Raja and me to pursue our service to our country,” she explains. 

“I was the first person in our office to telework,” Chari recalls. “My supervisor connected me with another attorney, who at the time, was teleworking as part of another law group. I remember her saying to me, ‘Don’t screw this up for us! We’ve got to maintain their trust and demonstrate that telework is valuable and a great solution.’ So, I did.”

While in Florida, the couple welcomed two children. After three years, they moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, for a year where Raja attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. 

“We were back in the Midwest and reasonably close to family,” she says. “It was tremendous, especially with young children. I love the Midwest, but it was short-lived.”

Chari’s resilience was her strength. It became increasingly more challenging to keep up with all the demands of both children and Raja being gone frequently for duty. She decided to shift her employment to part-time. 

From Kansas, the family moved to Washington, D.C., for two and a half years where Raja was assigned to the Rapid Capabilities Office, Bolling Air Force Base. Chari returned to in-person work a few days a week at VA’s Central Office. The couple welcomed a third child while stationed there.

“Raja went to Florida to train in the F-35A Lightning. He received an assignment to be the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force and commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in California,” Chari recollected. 

They stayed in California until July 2017, when they moved to the Houston, Texas, area when Raja was selected to be an astronaut. 

Chari serves as the current president of the Astronaut Spouses Group. 

“Our military and our veterans are a very diverse group of individuals who have lived in and experienced places all over the world,” she says. “When a military family moves within the United States or internationally, they are ambassadors. It’s a responsibility that military members and families have. We are making connections, building community and establishing lasting relationships with our host city, state and country.”

Chari understands and appreciates the sacrifices and hard work of all who serve. She uses the skills she learned at Central every day to help people and serve our country in crucial ways — everything she hoped to accomplish when she arrived on campus in the fall of 1995. 

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