Gilby graduated from Southwestern University on May 8, 2021.Gilby graduated from Southwestern University on May 8, 2021.A genetic predisposition to politics

“I’ve always been interested in government and politics,” says Emily Gilby ’21. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with that degree, but I knew it was what I wanted to study because that’s what I was passionate about.”

That keen interest in government is practically genetic in Gilby’s family. Her maternal grandfather was active in politics, and while the Southwestern senior was growing up in northern Virginia, outside of Washington, DC, she remembers her family participating in school-board meetings to protest the drastic budget cuts that were impacting area K–12 schools and attending campaign events to support electoral candidates. When the Gilbys moved to Texas, her mother, Kim, became even more intensely involved in politics; if you live in the Austin–Georgetown area, you might recognize her as the current chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party.

During one summer in high school, on June 25, 2013, Gilby and her mother attended the 13-hour filibuster of Senate Bill 5 by Texas State Senator Wendy Davis at the Capitol, which captured the attention of the nation. “It was just so thrilling and so cool,” Gilby recalls, that she began working as a field intern for Davis’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign and for Battleground Texas, a political action committee that aims to turn the red state purple. The then-16-year-old recruited new volunteers, organized events, participated in phone banks, and even knocked on doors. “It was really fun because I was really shy—not like super, super shy, but [when] calling somebody that you don’t know and asking them to vote, a lot of them were nice, but then you get that odd person who screams at you,” she laughs. “It was a good experience, though.”

After graduating from high school and taking a gap year to work, Gilby enrolled at Austin Community College (ACC) and interned for a Travis County justice of the peace, broadening her experience into civil law and administration. ACC’s Honors Program enabled her to study abroad while working as a resident assistant in Strasbourg, France, where she visited the European Court of Human Rights and the U.S. Consulate with her classmates. “Some people still look down on community colleges,” she reflects, “but we have a really good one… . It was a really awesome experience.”

Honors, voters, mentors, transfers, and Howers

It was while in France that Gilby decided to transfer to Southwestern because the university offered numerous academic and internship opportunities as well as support for transfer students. Political science was her obvious choice for major, and her stellar performance soon earned her an invitation to the department’s honors program. She spent a year and a half assiduously researching and writing her honors thesis, “Institutional Barriers to Youth Voter Turnout,” which was inspired by reports that participation by younger voters spiked in the 2018 midterm elections. “There’s this narrative that youth voters are a lot different than other voters of different ages—like they vote in lower numbers and they don’t care,” Gilby explains. “But it’s more complicated than that … because their voting patterns actually mimic those of the other age groups. So when there’s high [youth voter] turnout, there’s high turnout for all of the age groups.” Her project included interviews to determine how younger voters’ motivations compare with those of other generations. Gilby recently presented her research at the virtual annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, and she will be submitting her thesis—as well as a separate paper on incivility in political discourse that she coauthored with her honors advisor, Assistant Professor Emily Sydnor—for publication this summer or fall. Her accomplishments earned Gilby the Outstanding Student in Political Science Award this year.

In addition to getting to explore topics she is deeply invested in, Gilby says her intellectual interests helped her build bonds with several SU faculty members. She cherishes the mentorship of three of her political science professors in particular: Eric Selbin (“I love going to his office and just talking to him because he makes me feel a lot smarter”); Alisa Gaunder, whom Gilby asked to be her academic advisor (“she’s really awesome and super, super smart”); and Sydnor (“we’re both Emily, we’re both from Virginia, and we’re both super into American politics, so I feel like a real kinship with her”). Those relationships have been crucial to her sense of belonging at Southwestern. “I was really apprehensive as a transfer that I wouldn’t get that same experience as coming in as a freshman because it’s such a small school,” she shares. “But at Southwestern, I’ve gotten to know all of my professors, some more than others obviously… . Those three mentors have helped me tremendously, whether it’s just the class I’m taking with them or figuring out what I want to do. [Getting] to have their experience and their input on these huge life decisions is really phenomenal.” During her senior year, she also benefited from multiple conversations with Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Katie Aha. “[She] has been absolutely amazing this year as both a professor and someone to talk to about grad school,” Gilby gushes. Aha has been instrumental in helping the Southwestern senior determine what kind of graduate programs to apply to and how to best spend her time after graduation. “She’s such an amazing addition to SU, and I wish I could stay if only to take more classes with her,” Gilby adds.

Like many a political science major at Southwestern, Gilby also discovered a passion for and consequently minored in history, in large part because of courses taught by Associate Professor Jessica Hower, who specializes in early modern Europe, and Assistant Professor Joseph Hower, who focuses on U.S. labor and politics. “I love the Howers, both Dr. Mrs. And Dr. Mr.,” Gilby says. Jess Hower’s “classes were some of the hardest I’ve taken,” she adds, “but she gives you amazing feedback, and … the readings on her syllabi are awesome—there’s always a historical fiction novel on there, which is excellent—and she’s just really special.” Last fall, she was excited to take Joe Hower’s History of Conservatism seminar, and she ended up asking him and Gaunder to be part of her honors thesis committee. “It made the defense so much fun and such an amazing conversation about where next to take my work,” she reflects. “Their feedback is so smart, and they’ve made me such a better writer and thinker.”

At Southwestern, we’re really lucky because we have small discussion-based classes, so you have to be open to listening—and actually and actively listening—because you learn so much more about politics, like where these ideas come from, which is important for understanding the current political environment and polarization.

Three years of coursework at Southwestern have not changed Gilby’s progressive politics, but she values learning about a broad swathe of ideologies. “You just have to be open to learning about other people’s opinions and values. You can’t be so combative,” she remarks. “I know at some colleges, it’s just lecture, lecture, lecture, so you can’t even discuss. At Southwestern, we’re really lucky because we have small discussion-based classes, so you have to be open to listening—and actually and actively listening—because you learn so much more about politics, like where these ideas come from, which is important for understanding the current political environment and polarization.”

Active listening in action

Gilby has brought that understanding to her work supporting democracy. This past November, she organized SU students to become election workers at the on-campus polling location. “It was the second presidential election I’ve worked and the fifth election I’ve been a poll worker,” she shares, “and it was very fun to see so many students excited about not just voting but working an election.” There were frustrations, too, when she received pushback from the county, but she values the process and being able to share the election-worker experience with fellow students.

Gilby also supplemented her classroom learning by continuing to seek professional opportunities with government officials. She volunteered with the campaign of John Bucy III in 2018, and when her candidate was elected a member of the Texas House of Representatives, she applied for and landed a position as a paid intern on his team. The experience earned her academic credit at Southwestern through the Texas Politics Internships course. “The special thing about working in a small office, especially for a freshman rep[resentative], is that you basically get to do everything,” she explains. “They gave me a lot of responsibility, which is kind of rare.” Those responsibilities included responding to requests from Bucy’s constituents on Facebook, in letters, and during phone calls. She also tracked and analyzed bills to get a better sense of how Bucy and other representatives might vote.

But perhaps the most memorable part of her job as a legislative aide was doing what she learned to do at Southwestern: listen. She remembers a particularly heartrending conversation with members of the Lilith Fund, a nonprofit that provides funding for reproductive choice and equity. “It was such a good experience listening to these people whose whole lives can be impacted by a single policy,” Gilby recalls. “I don’t think people realize it’s such an emotional job. You’re hearing this huge range of problems that are really serious from real-life people, and you want to help them out.” She admits that those uplifting moments were often countered by the frustrations of a legislature controlled by the opposing party that passed bills undermining the needs expressed by the individuals and groups her office represented. Nevertheless, she says, “It was such a rewarding job… . That one rare moment when you could help somebody and have an impact on their life was really, really nice.”

For the love of TribFest

During her internship, Gilby discovered the Sumners Scholarship while attending an event hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin. She was chatting with fellow Southwestern student Laura Rativa ’20, who mentioned the scholarship. Gilby researched further and discovered that the program would gain her access to TribFest, an annual event sponsored by the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit media bureau that Gilby gleefully confesses she “loves” and is “obsessed with.” She eagerly applied. After a long screening process that included interviews in Dallas (“It actually wasn’t bad,” she reveals, “and it was kind of fun because I like talking about this stuff!”), the then-junior got the good news that she had been selected.

As part of the scholarship programming, Gilby attended a talk by 13th NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine with good friend and fellow Sumners Scholar Breely Peterson ’20. The truly enlightening component of that event, she shares, occurred when the Sumners recipients were invited to a private Q&A, at which Bridenstine spoke more freely about the tricky negotiations required in bipartisan politics.

In October 2019, she also got to attend her beloved TribFest. There, she met Texas Tribune cofounder and CEO Evan Smith and witnessed a fascinating debate about modern conservatism between MSNBC political commentator Chris Hayes and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. “Obviously,” Gilby remembers delightedly, “the TribFest was amazing.”

A change maker in the offing

The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately derailed some of Gilby’s other Sumners-hosted programming in 2020; she instead used the summer to earn money working full-time. But when Southwestern resumed on-campus operations last fall, Gilby dove into her honors thesis while interning with multiple organizations to promote voter participation in the 2020 elections. She also became the deputy director of political affairs for Texas College Democrats, a branch of the Democratic National Committee. Some undergraduates might fear pursuing as many internships as Gilby has, thinking that they lack experience. But, she says, “even that experience of being a volunteer on a campaign opens so many doors for other internships. Campaigns are awesome because you learn so much, and you can take that with you… . There are opportunities out there; you just have to look for them.”

Having just graduated from Southwestern summa cum laude and been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious honor society in the U.S., Gilby is back at the Texas House of Representatives as a part-time legislative aide. She plans to work this year while preparing to take the LSAT; she sees graduate school, law school, or both in her future. Her passion for championing voting rights and her interest in what she calls “the intellectual puzzle of law” will undoubtedly shape her career. However, she’s also clearly a representative SU grad considering that her interests run far and wide. “I’m the type of person [that] if I could get multiple bachelor’s degrees at Southwestern, I would in different fields because I want to know everything!” she says.