Ethan Quezada, 1st-year class president and intern with Senator Tina Smith, tells a story of purpose and belonging. He grew up in an environment where Ethan struggled to make his dreams of public service a reality. At Augsburg, his rapid rise through student government encounters with meaningful faculty and professional mentors, and internships with Senator Smith led him on a path of self-actualization culminating in discoveries of self-confidence, hope, and service to his community.
Ethan Quezada: When you have a vocation, when you’ve found a vocation, you’ll know that it is a vocation, in fact, because you have aligned your goals with helping others. You can make sure that your daily goal is to do everything that it takes for you to accomplish another step towards your longterm goal, but you just have to orient your longterm goal to service.
Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I’m Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it’s my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast.
Catherine Day: I’m Catherine Reid Day, host of The Augsburg Podcast. Today we speak with Ethan Quezada, Class of 2022, as well as with several of his academic and professional mentors, about Ethan’s path to discovering his calling to public service. It’s a journey that took shape at Augsburg and during Ethan’s internship with Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, but its beginnings are much earlier and more formative.
Ethan Quezada: Honestly, I could tie it back to fifth grade. That was the time period where I was essentially suffering the most at pretty much the hands of the government. And what that would look like for me is the ’08 recession caused a lot of financial difficulties for my family. I mean, Minnesota is one of the … actually, I’m pretty sure it’s the worst state for students of color, and I grew up in the Minneapolis public school system at a school that was pretty terrible, and when I say terrible, I don’t just mean that we got bad grades. I mean, there was violence, there was a lot of sad stuff. And I recall feeling back then just straight up powerless. And it was so interesting because I knew that it wasn’t the system making me powerless. I knew it was the people. I knew it was that the people that were making these policy choices. I knew it was the people that were teaching or administering or anything like that. It always came down to the people.
Ethan Quezada: And when I was younger, I got frustrated because I thought that you can’t change other people. You can’t do anything like that. I mean, especially when you’re young and especially when you’re a person of color. But whether it was never being able to have a bike because every time I got a new one it was stolen or whether it was having the water shut off or the power shut off for a couple days because we couldn’t afford to have utilities or whether it was having my childhood home foreclosed upon and then having to uproot my life and move to a different city away from all the things that I have known and loved. Countless things.
Ethan Quezada: And I guess the important thing to take away here is that the stories are not unique, and that’s the problem. It’s not like what I’m saying is new news, something surprising. I mean, it’s something that millions and millions and millions of Americans are going through. We’ve got a problem. And in that problem we also have a solution because I honestly believe that people who go through struggles and people who have been exposed to difficult situations have a lot better handle on how to deal with the difficulties that life brings you.
Ethan Quezada: Religion 100 was one of the first classes that I had at Augsburg, and I had it with Professor Russell Kleckley, and he was kind of the introduction for me into what it means to have a vocation and what it means to have a calling. I know that I’ll be fulfilling my vocation of making sure that I’m doing public service, that I’m serving others. I was just talking to a friend yesterday who was really struggling with trying to find a balance between taking care of themselves and also serving others, and I said, “Well, you can do both. You can make sure that your daily goal is to do everything that it takes for you to accomplish another step towards your longterm goal, and that way you can be self interested and selfless at the same time.” And that’s something that really started to be established as something that I identify as a core value, and I learned that in Religion 100.
Mike Grewe: Ethan applied when he came as a first year student last year in 2018 as part of our Emerging Leaders program.
Catherine Day: This is Mike Grewe, director of campus life.
Mike Grewe: He also at the same time, his first week of class, ran for first year class Senator and won, and he was also part of student government, which I advise, so on top of being in the emerging leaders program, got to know him really well in student government. Ethan is a very hardworking, very dedicated student. He is really passionate about changing Augsburg for the better and changing his community for the better.
Mike Grewe: For Ethan, I think the way that I see vocation living out is a passion for changing the world to be a better place, and the way that he’s enacting that right now is really thinking about how can he change Augsburg to be a better place both for students, but he also sees that for staff and faculty as well. He really loves the faculty and staff here. He really loves the students here, and I think he really by the time he graduates in a couple of years, wants to see Augsburg in in a better place than it is now. He wants to see it grow. He wants to see it flourish. He wants to see it be vibrant. And so his vocation is really lived out through his passion in serving and working with others.
Catherine Day: In his time advising student government at Augsburg, Mike has had ample to observe firsthand how Augsburg students are driven to make change.
Mike Grewe: I work with students here at Augsburg who say that they want to be US Senators, that they want to be CEOs, that they want to run their own nonprofits, that they want to run a youth center or just make change in their community, whether that’s in their place of worship or whether that’s in their local communities. Leadership takes on so many different forms. You don’t have to be in a position of authority to have leadership. You can inspire and drive leadership in any role that you have, and I see students who graduate from Augsburg realizing that and taking control and taking their own agency to drive that change in whatever place they end up after they graduate from Augsburg.
Bob Groven: We’re taking a class. It’s the liberating letters. And the class has a structure where the students stage a trial. Actually, they stage four trials, and so Ethan was, how shall I say, highly engaged in those trials.
Catherine Day: This is Bob Groven, professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Film, and New Media, and co-chair of that department.
Mike Grewe: After class, then, Ethan would start asking me questions about what work I did. He was interested in being a lawyer. I’m also a lawyer. He was interested in argument and debate, and I coach debate and I teach debate and argumentation, and then I would say it was really wasn’t until the last third of the class where he started to realize that I was also interested in political work. I also did political campaign work and I’ve done coaching of political candidates. He was highly motivated, and it’s always interesting to see a student that’s so interested in politics and has such a sincere interest in politics for the right reasons.
Mike Grewe: He cares about the issues more than he just cares about winning. He cares about serving the state, the community more than he cares about just serving himself, and that’s an unusual combination and it’s really a wonderful thing to see. And so that’s when he and I started talking about political work, and now we’ve had many conversations in classes, out of classes. He’s also started to ask me a lot of really practical questions about how do you get into politics, what are the base entrance vehicles, how do you become part of a campaign, and was very clear that this is a student who both has the skill and the ambition to really try to do something in whatever world he wanted to enter.
Ethan Quezada: I got an internship in Senator Tina Smith’s office, and that blew my mind because first of all, I’m a first year at this point and that’s kind of unreal. My boss, Lexi Byler, she took a chance. She took a risk. She saw a resume that honestly wasn’t comparable to probably some of the other top resumes in the group, but saw potential and she decided to take a risk and she decided to put her faith in me even though she didn’t know who I was. That kind of belief from somebody else being put in you, it gave me such a boost of confidence that led me to acknowledge that I can do it. I can do the things that I didn’t previously think were possible for me. Honestly, it was a huge stepping stone in my life. It basically got me from being this high school student that I mentioned to, transitioning into making real change.
Ethan Quezada: When I started the internship I did basic Congressional intern stuff … or not, yeah, I guess, Senator’s office, essentially answering phone calls, going through constituent mail, doing research, writing memos, the basic stuff. I did a presentation and presented it in front of the staff and that was fun.
Bob Groven: When people contact a senator’s office, 80% of the time they’re just complaining.
Catherine Day: Bob Groven again.
Bob Groven: That’s what they want to do. They want to complain and it’s very hard for a person to deal with that hour after hour, day after day, and so I thought, “Oh, this is going to be … Ethan’s going to get turned off by lists.” I’ve seen so many students that get turned off, but he didn’t. He was super energized by it. He loved it. He loved the feeling in the office. He was super impressed by Senator Smith herself and he just had such a good attitude about the complaints that people had. He really viewed it as an opportunity to try to convince them or if you couldn’t convince them, at least to let them be heard. They really just want to know that somebody in the Senator’s office listened to them and cared about what they said, and Ethan loved that. Ethan was really good at that, and that’s a rare and difficult skill.
Catherine Day: Ethan’s successful first term interning with the Senator brought him to the attention of the Senator’s team and afforded him the opportunity to work with the Senator’s office for a second term.
Ethan Quezada: I had actually applied to five internships in DC and gotten none of them, and then my boss found out that I wasn’t going to be doing anything this summer, and so she went and talked to her boss, Miranda Morgan Lilla, and was like, “Hey, we could get him on for another term. He’s got an opening and he’s done well for us.” And I’m not exactly sure what went down in that conversation, but all I know is that I was being called into Miranda’s office and I was nervous because I was like, “Uh-oh. I have never been called into Miranda’s office. I must’ve done something wrong.” And I get in there and I’m just like, “I didn’t get these internships and now I’m going to mess this one up,” and then she was like, “I want you to stay on for another term.” And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe it.” Because that was the first time they’d ever asked anyone. And I was so, so proud of myself and also so gracious that people were giving me these opportunities.
Ethan Quezada: And so my second term I got to train in the new interns, which was awesome, honestly. I have a bond with them now that is really, really beneficial for me. And I also got to start doing a little bit of case work for Social Security and healthcare, and that was really, really interesting because I got to see what actually happens when you’re having an issue with a federal agency. Prior to this internship, I had never been into the Fed. I’ve never talked to the people who are “higher ups.” It’s always been that 1-800 number or something like that, so being able to interact and see what the system works like at a personal level helped me understand things that I’m going to need to do in order to be successful in the future.
Catherine Day: “I’m so thankful for all of my interns, hard work and service to Minnesota,” Senator Smith wrote to us. “It was great to have Ethan in my St. Paul office where he helped constituents on the phone and in person, assisted my staff, and managed the front desk. You know, when I was a Senate intern, I literally fell down the Capitol steps in a hurry, papers flying. Fortunately, I don’t think anything like that happened to Ethan during his internship or has happened to any of my other interns. It’s great to hear that Ethan enjoyed his internship at my office, and I encourage other Augsburg students who are interested in getting an up close look at the inner workings of a Senator office to apply for an internship as well. You can find information about this opportunity on my website, www.smith.senate.gov.”
Ethan Quezada: The first time that I met Senator Smith, I was expecting somebody very, very technical, somebody very, very clearly well-educated, very composed, and very, I suppose cold because that was my impression of what a Senator was like at the time. I remember first walking into the conference room and seeing her, and I recall that she just gave me this huge smile, and as I looked to my right and I see that there’s pizza, and I am like, “Wait. This is a Senator and we’re just eating pizza. That’s kind of unreal.” And I remember in my conversations with her, she just straight up asked me what I think about some of the real-life situations that are going on in the Senate. Just a regular kid, just an intern, just at the time I think I was 18, and she valued the opinion that I gave her. We had a discussion back and forth, me and some of the other interns and Senator Smith and we were talking for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and it was an experience that led me to realize that it’s just possible.
Ethan Quezada: You grow up and you hit so many roadblocks and barriers, whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s being a violent and aggressive youth, whether it’s poverty or parents’ separation. You go through all these things and you start to feel like the world isn’t really for you. You start to feel like you don’t really have the same level of capability or opportunities of most other people, and sitting in that room and sitting across from somebody who spoke so humbly, who maintained their moral integrity, maintained the person that they are, did not compromise and still was able to achieve success, it’s a huge inspiration because it shows that being good does get you far. Working hard does get you far. Being humble does get you far. You don’t have to be this vision that most people have, Senators, that they’re backstabbing, that they’re very cunning or clever, and that they are very self interested. It really changed my perspective as to what kind of things I would be able to accomplish in my career.
Catherine Day: Today we’ve heard from Ethan Quezada, Class of 2022. We’ve heard also from Mike Grewe, Director of Campus Life, Bob Groven, professor and co-chair in the Department of Communication Studies, Film and New Media, and Minnesota. Senator Tina Smith. I’m Catherine Reid Day and this is The Augsburg Podcast.
Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to The Augsburg Podcast. I’m President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit augsburg.edu.