Austin Hechler: 4th Year Political Science Major
I was lucky to be able to snatch a half an hour away from Austin to sit down and talk about his college experience. He’s the kind of guy that will always text you back right away, but often can’t set a time to meet up for a few days. He’s simply got too much going on. Lucky for me, he found a day to squeeze me in after going to the gym. When we meet he’s wearing workout gear, but earlier that day he was almost definitely wearing a suit. Austin treats his gym time preciously: it’s one of the few activities he hasn’t quite been able to work into his schedule as consistently as he would like. Usually other commitments just eat up his waking hours. He told me that the day before he was on campus by 6:30 in the morning, and didn’t hop back on his bike to ride back to Isla Vista until 11:30 that night.
“I’ve always thought, ‘This is the busiest I will ever be in my life.’ That’s what I hope at least.”
Austin talks fast. He’s a strong communicator who has learned to be efficient with his words. As a veteran of Associated Students government, he’s had to be. Now the AS President, Austin spent most of his time at UCSB heavily involved in school politics. Over the course of four years, he cemented a legacy that will have him remembered as a political titan at the school, from the Residence Hall Association all the way to the top of the AS ladder. But Austin remembers that he wasn’t always the leader he is today. Originally he had a very different path for himself mapped out in his head. Like many students, Austin’s journey through college veered in directions he couldn’t have predicted as his interests morphed around the environment he was in, and the opportunities he was presented.
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Those who know Austin can attest to the fact he seems like a natural politician. He’s smart, funny, and very likable. He can talk to you about just about anything, but more importantly, he knows how to listen. It was interesting to learn, then, that when he first came to college Austin was dead set on a life completely unrelated to politics or leadership. Coming to UCSB from a small town in the Napa Valley, he imagined spending his undergraduate years locked away in the library studying to prepare himself for medical school: “I started as a chemistry major,” he revealed to me, “I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. I was a social guy, but I wanted to just stay in, study, and not meet anyone.”
He began working through the brutally difficult introductory classes for the major and found satisfaction in working hard to understand the concepts. Austin is a guy who likes to be challenged- undertaking the understanding of the molecular make up of our world was just going to require some hard work. Initially, Austin did very well. The complexity of the field gave him something to sink his teeth into, and hours of pouring over lecture slides and textbooks yielded pretty good grades throughout his first few quarters. A path forward seemed clear; hard work for the next four years would pay off with admission to good medical school, where more work would eventually land him his dream job in medicine.
At some point in the first few months in school, Austin did waver on one of his preconceived notions about how he would spend his time at UCSB. Focusing only on his academics didn’t really seem to be enough for him. He wanted to get involved in something more, to meet people and feel a part of a larger community. Living in the North Tower of the Santa Catalina dorms, too many fun and interesting people were running around to spend all of his time examining bonds and atoms. So he made a decision to get involved, and like most of the things Austin does, he decided to go big. He ran for and eventually won the seat of President of North Tower, a position on the Residence Hall Association that put him in charge of finding ways to improve life for all of his fellow residents in the old converted hotel.
In that role Austin was determined to actually work for students, as opposed to treating it as a ceremonial title like many had done before him. His life consisted of class, studying, and learning to navigate the UC bureaucracy which ultimately determined how resources are distributed around campus.
He became good friends with Ashcon Minoiefar, the elected president of Santa Catalina’s South tower. Together, they worked to understand best practices of advocacy when it came to fulfilling the requests of their constituents. UCSB is, after all, a massive school, and though the cost of the resources the two young men lobbied for their respective dorms represented a drop in the bucket compared to the overall budget of the university, Austin and Ashcon realized early in their time in office that actually getting what they wanted within that system requires patience, persistence, and finesse.
In that year, Austin was able to install vending machines in both towers to compensate for the fact that there were no late night food options for hungry residents who might have otherwise faced a long trek to the heart of IV in the dark.
When I asked him what he felt that did for his residents, the answer was immediate and simple:
“Making people’s lives easier. I found worth in that.”
It was a seemingly small accomplishment, but seeing the effect it had on student’s wellbeing triggered something in Austin. It didn’t seem that different from his work in chemistry classes: examining problems, looking at possible solutions, and digging in to figure out how to proceed was a process he enjoyed very much. It wouldn’t be long before he was completely swept up in a new-found love of student government.
* * *
But in the meantime, Austin was slugging along through the chemistry major with waning interest. He still liked the challenge of it, but the information itself was becoming too rigid, too fixed. The mechanisms and laws governing the field remained constant forever- where was the excitement in that? By the time spring break rolled around, Austin was less sure about whether or not he really wanted to continue with it.
Coincidentally, he spent that break traveling to Nepal with his girlfriend at the time and her father, a heart surgeon who was completing his residency in the remote, mountainous country. Austin said that that trip gave him a completely new perspective on the field of medicine. Watching this doctor and talking with him about his path to get where he was made Austin realize that there was going to be an incredibly long process involved in moving from an undergraduate chemistry student to a full-fledged surgeon. It wasn’t that he didn’t already know it, but what he could then see first-hand was that getting to the end of the road required an immense passion for what you were doing- a passion that Austin just wasn’t sure he had.
When he returned to Santa Barbara to begin spring quarter, Austin was struggling to remain committed to his original decision to pursue pre-med. It just didn’t fire him up to the amount he knew he needed to be if he was to have a shot of making it as a doctor. He began to explore other options as alternatives. One of these options came in the form of enrolling in an introductory political science class. For most students in that major, American Government and Politics is one of the more boring prerequisite classes you need to take. But Austin immediately loved it. It fit his fast paced way of thinking, and interest in the ever-changing nature of the way people interact:
“Politics is always happening. Our knowledge of politics is always growing and always changing: you can never predict it. I felt fascinated by the insecurity and lack of stability in something like political science.”
With chemistry, the information he learned seemed confined to the theoretical realm of lecture halls and textbooks. It was interesting, but Austin couldn’t seem to find many overlaps between what he was studying and how the world was playing out around him. It was frustrating not being able to carry that information over: “I’m not gonna finish O-chem and be like, ‘hey, let’s kick it and talk about O-chem,’” he joked. When he compared this to the way he felt about political science, the contrast was stark. “I felt like you could see politics everywhere. Politics is the study of who gets what, when and why. I feel like that’s applicable to anything in life.” He switched his major that quarter.
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There was perhaps no more relevant example of the concepts of political science playing out in Austin’s life than through his work in student government. As president of the North Tower, Austin caught the political bug. He loved the witnessing the power dynamics he studied in class embodied in the process of fighting for resources for his residents. Austin wanted to get slated to run for Senate with the Open People’s Party (OPP) for the upcoming year, but in the end did not get selected.
This was far from a deterrent however; he remained involved by becoming Chief of Staff for one of the executive offices in AS during his sophomore year. There he continued to learn how the organization operated, which tactics worked and which did not. He kept tabs on all of the AS members, and gauged their effectiveness in accomplishing goals. In Fall quarter he also joined a fraternity on campus, and the next quarter was elected to be the Inter Fraternity Council (IFC) Vice President of Communications. All the while he continued to meet people from all around campus, and aggregate the common needs of the student body. Slowly he was building up a reputation as a person with connections and political savvy.
His second attempt at running for AS was successful, and in his third year Austin was fully committed to working on behalf of students as an off campus Senator . That year’s senate was particularly controversial, he remembers, with multiple protests, mid-term resignations, and a turbulent national political climate that seemed to spill over into campus life. Throughout it all, Austin remained poised and dedicated getting things done. His accomplishments that year distinguished him as someone who could battle though obstruction to deliver promises. He credits that rough period to a lot of his current skill as a leader: “Through and through we kept our composure when other senators quit and cried and yelled at people. We delivered out promises, services, resources, and advocacy for students.”
He also credits his ability to effectively navigate that climate to the information he was picking up in his political science classes. Austin began to frame the different people and offices within the institution of UCSB as actors in a political system, much like nation-states become actors in the geo-political arena. Each has its wants, needs, and constraints that will define their actions. The trick is lining up the proper negotiations to effectively leverage the best possible outcomes for all parties. It was helping him to develop his diplomacy skills at a time when there was lots of conflict between student groups.
This framework also helped him better understand how to navigate conflicts in other areas of his life. He told me about a time when a dispute with this landlord arose after a faulty appliance broke. Their landlord wanted to charge them an exorbitant amount for something that was never really their fault, putting his housemates and him in a position well-known to residents of Isla Vista. Simply put, they were getting screwed: “My housemates were really fired up, they wanted to email him right away.” But instead of responding with anger in the easiest way possible, he urged his housemates to think about different possibilities: “‘I understand you’re really upset right now,’” he told them, “’but were not going to get anything done emailing him. What we need to do is talk to another actor in the system. To get what we want there’s multiple options.’”
Eventually they worked out a deal with their landlord’s repair guy and avoided the charge. Diplomacy in action.
It was with these skills that Austin ran for AS President at the end of junior year, already a seasoned and experienced student leader. He had learned to solve problems and overcome obstacles. When he sensed that the student body wasn’t satisfied with OPP’s platforms, he and his peers formed a new party and essentially swept the election. Under the name Campus United, his time as President has ushered in a series of large scale projects to UCSB.
Among his many accomplishments, the most critically acclaimed is the community policing effort known as IVPD. The IVPD program sought to ease tensions between residents of Isla Vista and the police force whose difficult job is to keep safe the streets in a town where the desire to have a good time can often spiral out of hand, leading to conflict between law enforcement and mostly well-meaning college kids. At a school where numerous violent incidents have occurred over the past few years, Austin saw the measure as a way to improve conditions of safety for both parties. His ability to bring together seemingly conflicting groups to negotiate agreeable solutions led the program’s resounding success, among many other fruitful policy initiatives.
* * *
Like the AS presidents that came before him, the end of his senior year will bring the end of his term, and a deep reflection on all that his experience in college has brought him. The combination of political science as a study and practice shaped him into a capable leader, but also a better student. Dealing with the multitude of diverse needs of the campus made him more open minded about the range of opinions that must be considered in issues of real life politics: “Its allowed me to take different perspectives,” he reflected, a sentiment that rings true in his deep knowledge of international and domestic policy issues.
Moving forward, Austin is still unsure about what exactly he wants to do after he graduates, though he’s not too worried about it. He knows that his communication and leadership skills will enable him to be effective in the right position. But more importantly, he knows that to be really successful he needs to align himself with a cause that he deeply cares about. Austin told me he recently turned down a high-paying job offer in finance because he couldn’t see himself working incredibly hard for something he just didn’t love: “I don’t want to just work at a big company with a nice name. I want to do something that makes me happy, and something I know I can do very well.”
Thinking about how he began his college journey provides good precedent for this insight. Who knows where Austin would be had he tried to stick with something he wasn’t passionate about. Instead of being dogmatic, Austin opened himself up to where his natural talents and interests led him, inevitably to great success. He, and I as well, think this formula is a good way to remain successful in the future.
But for now, he is no rush to jump into another many years of extreme busyness. I asked him if he was going to apply for jobs or graduate school right out of college. He rubbed his eyes:
“Really, I don’t know how much busier I can get. It’s rewarding because I love it. But I think I kind of want to chill for a bit.”