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UNC goes to Washington: Graduates reflect on their paths to politics


When U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., graduated from UNC in 1961, the idea of running for Congress was far from his mind. 

Price had transferred two years prior from Mars Hill University, majoring in history and math — the latter a remnant of his former goal to become an engineer after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. 

He didn’t know it at the time, but multiple aspects of his campus involvement would later play an important role in his political career.

Along with being a Morehead-Cain Scholar, president of the Baptist Student Union, parliamentarian of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies and a member of student government, Price said he played a role in a student government resolution that requested Chapel Hill merchants serve people of all races — a movement largely spearheaded by campus religious groups. 

“(Congress) was never on my radar screen,” he said. “But I was interested in leadership, and that became tied to political issues mainly through the Civil Rights Movement.”

Like Price, UNC graduates currently involved in politics at the state and national level participated in a variety of extracurriculars during their undergraduate careers, many of which did not explicitly deal with politics. 

Gov. Roy Cooper graduated from the University in 1979 on the Morehead-Cain Scholarship and was president of the UNC Young Democrats. Sophomore Alana Edwards, vice president of UNC Young Democrats, said she joined the group her first semester in hopes of possibly having a political career like Cooper's.

“It’s definitely exciting to see that someone who was once on the exec board of YD too has moved on to become such a symbol of progressivism and a figurehead of the Democratic Party in North Carolina,” she said.

"There’s no set pathway"

Peter Hall, a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, initially intended to major in math. He switched to an English major and took the LSAT his junior year after he realized he had an interest in public service. After less-than-ideal results, he taught at a high school in Sanford, North Carolina after graduating in January 1971. 

A Morehead-Cain Scholar, Hall served as president of the Interfraternity Council his senior year. He returned to UNC after a semester of teaching and became the assistant dean of men — now encompassed by the position of the assistant dean of students — received his master’s degree in education from UNC, retook the LSAT and attended Cornell Law School. 

By 2003, Hall had enough legal experience under his belt to earn a nomination to his current court by former President George W. Bush. He was confirmed in 2004. 

He said he didn’t plan on ending up in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals until the opportunity presented itself.

“The things that I found ultimately important in getting to where I have gotten are just working hard and essentially making it absolutely clear that you are a person of your word,” Hall said. 

Like Hall, many politicians take different paths to get to their offices. UNC sophomore Serena Singh, who was recently elected co-chairperson of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Outreach Committee in the Undergraduate Executive Branch, said having political role models is beneficial because it shows you don’t have to go to law school to go into politics. 

“There’s no set pathway to get into any career, but especially with politics it’s so liquid to get to that point,” she said. “Seeing the motivation on campus and knowing that some important UNC alum are currently very involved in politics is inspiring.”

Price didn’t run for Congress until 1987. He first received a theology degree and a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University, explored his political interests by spending several summers working at a Senate office in Washington, then worked in academia for a time, teaching classes in political science and public policy at Duke University.

“I needed a career that would be rewarding and satisfying and worthwhile no matter what,” Price said. “I prepared for a career in teaching and research, and it turned out that did lead to politics.”

Tanner Henson, a sophomore at UNC, is a member of UNC College Republicans and Turning Point USA and chairperson for the Undergraduate Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee. He said he's preparing for a career in either politics or dentistry with majors in both biology and political science.

“Either way I think I’ll run for Congress at some point,” Henson said. “I want to be a Senator, so that’s my long-term political goal. Currently there are six dentists in Congress, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented to happen.”

Hall said almost every job includes participation in group activities and rising up through the ranks through hard work.

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“By participating — whether it’s in sports or extracurriculars or both — it is definitely part of one’s broader education,” Hall said.

Ambition, realism and a little bit of luck

Price also emphasized the importance of campus involvement. 

"Pay attention to leadership and public service and the kind of ways you can make an impact," Price said. "And even as a student figure out ways you can be involved in the issues that matter to you in terms of your values and ways you can be involved in the community."

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-T.N., was a Morehead-Cain Scholar in the class of 1975, a member of the Chi Psi fraternity, fiction editor of The Cellar Door and co-editor of The Daily Tar Heel.

At the time, the position of DTH editor was a campus-elected position like student body president. 

“I campaigned in every dorm room on campus,” Rep. Cooper said. “I learned how many students had recently eaten peanut butter because the smell was apparent in every dorm room.”

Rep. Cooper attended the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then Harvard Law School before practicing law for 11 months and then running for Congress. 

He doesn’t encourage people to go into politics because of its inconsistencies.

“If luck and timing is right, you can go all the way, so you kind of need to bide your time until the right moment is there. And then you have to listen very carefully,” Rep. Cooper said. “Lots of folks are ambitious and want public office, but you have to be realistic.”


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