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Double Duty

Double DutyMassachusetts state senator and soon-to-be Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning graduate Benjamin Downing discusses life as a student and a legislator.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.08.08] As if juggling the varied class requirements of a master's degree program isn't enough, Massachusetts State Sen. Benjamin Downing (G'08) has spent the past two years splitting his time between the Hill on the Medford/Somerville campus and the State House on Boston's Beacon Hill.

Just months after entering the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) master's program in the fall of 2006, Downing was elected as a state senator, representing the districts of Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin.

During his campaign and time spent in office, Downing has strived to bring "fresh energy and new perspective" to the political process.

"A lot of the energy I was able to bring to the campaign and have hopefully brought to the office came from my experience at Tufts," Downing says. "My time at UEP made me much more hopeful and energetic not only about what I believed, but about what could get done."

As he prepares to graduate this month, the 26-year-old legislator took time to chat with E-News via e-mail on how he has successfully balanced the two roles, as well as his plans for the future.

When did you decide you wanted to be a State Senator and why?

I decided to run for the Senate when Andrea Nuciforo, the former senator, announced his retirement. The seat he represented included my hometown of Pittsfield, Mass., and the region I grew up in, the Berkshires. The short answer as to why I ran was the opportunity presented itself and I felt the time was right. The longer answer is that my parents and my family instilled in me a sense that we had a responsibility to give back to the community that had given so much to us and had created the opportunities we, meaning my brothers and sister, were lucky enough to be given and take advantage of.

What has it been like balancing your graduate work and your political duties?

Balancing graduate studies and political duties-in the Berkshires and on Beacon Hill - has been a challenge. However, the UEP faculty was incredibly kind and understanding of my constraints, as were my constituents and colleagues, who were always very supportive if I explained I had to reschedule a meeting or event due to school work. Finally, I think the balance was good practice in time management, but it also helped provide real world experience to test what I learned in the classroom and an open environment to think creatively, outside of a more constrained, chaotic political environment.

How do you feel your studies have enhanced your work as a senator and vice versa?

I feel my work in the Senate gave me a front row seat for the implementation of various ideas, programs and debates that we were discussing in the classroom. In that sense, I think it added to my graduate experience and, I would hope, to the experience of my classmates. Additionally, I believe my time in graduate classes made me a better senator and public servant, because I was challenged to think of things in a non-political framework, or at least a less political frame.

What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment, both politically and academically?

To date, I think my greatest accomplishment politically has been getting elected. In my campaign I ran against any number of older, more experienced candidates and my time at Tufts helped shape the message I brought to the campaign, which was ultimately a successful one. That being said, I think before this session is out I will have a few more accomplishments in the areas of green jobs, extension of broadband internet to rural communities and projects in my district. Academically, completing my thesis on small cities and the creative economy is my top accomplishment, without a doubt.My advisor, [UEP lecturer] Jon Witten, was a huge help, and my reader, [UEP lecturer] Laurie Goldman, offered very helpful insight. Both helped push me over the top this semester.

What has been your greatest challenge, both politically and academically?

My greatest challenge, politically, has been reminding myself that the problems I see and want to fix weren't created overnight, and in most cases won't be solved overnight. That doesn't mean you resolve yourself to failure, just that you recognize there are limits to how much you can do in 24 hours, no matter how much caffeine you consume.Academically, I think my greatest challenge is one I referenced earlier, that is, seeing issues not just through a political lens. It's important to know if an issue has a majority of support in a legislative body, but it's also important to know what the right thing to do is and try and find ways to bring those two realities together.

Where do you see yourself in terms of your political future?

I never would have guessed I'd be running for re-election as a 26-year-old. I also never would have guessed that I'd have the opportunity and honor to attend Tufts. If my life has taught me anything it's that each day is a blessing. So when it comes to the future, I'll take each day as it comes, work to make the most of it, and my political future will take care of itself.

Interview by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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