In his senior year at UNI, Ryan Stevenson, ‘18, took his first class with professor and head of the Department of Political Science, Scott Peters.
As Stevenson remembers it, Peters started the class with a bold statement, “If you haven’t yet been challenged throughout your college career, you’ve wasted your money.”
This was not a welcome declaration for Stevenson, who was hoping to just get through his last semesters. But he stuck with the class and soon found his interest peaked in the lively and engaging discussions. Then, in the final days leading up to graduation, he tried to sneak in a paper he knew wasn’t his finest. Peters was quick to call him out on that too, emailing to acknowledge he could do better.
It was at that moment that Stevenson realized he had to keep pushing. And the degree was just the beginning. There was so much more work ahead. The fact that Peters believed in him enough to pull him aside and say, “finish strong,” meant people were watching, and he didn’t want to disappoint.
Stevenson didn’t have a typical college experience. Just before his senior year, he was incarcerated and spent four years in federal prison.
While he did his time, he watched friends and neighbors go on to great things. Accomplishments he knew could have been his own. He was happy for his friends, of course, but started wondering ... what would his footprint be now?
So upon release, Stevenson went back to UNI to finish up his senior year. After graduation, he continued to push forward, taking his professors’ advice and putting in the hard work. His footprint, he decided, was to dig in and do his part to make a difference in politics.
He joined Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s campaign, starting as a canvasser and working his way up so that, by the end of the summer, he was hired onto her team.
From there, the opportunities took off. He’s been blessed to have offers from across the country, including working on Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign and most recently, within Rep. Finkenauer’s office once again. Through it all, he’s been learning and trying to figure out how to best help his city, his state and his country.
Although it’s been exciting to be involved in campaigns and help push forward initiatives on the federal level, Stevenson enjoys being able to help people right here in Waterloo and the surrounding Black Hawk County.
"Being that I'm from here, I live here ... what can we do right now?"
With that thought, Stevenson started helping community members find solutions to various issues and connecting them with ways to get engaged in local politics. It was a lot of hard work and late hours, but it felt good to help.
And his efforts didn't go unnoticed. At the January 2020 NAACP Martin Luther King, Jr. Banquet, Stevenson was awarded the Social Action Inc. Founder's Choice Award.
It’s a recognition he doesn’t take lightly. The award, along with all the other opportunities and experiences garnered post-graduation, has only pushed him harder.
Now, a lot of eyes are on Stevenson. In fact, looking out into the crowd at the awards banquet, he saw Peters alongside professor Donna Hoffman, cheering him on.
“That really touched me,” he reflected. “It would be easy for me to fade into the background, but now is the time to do more ... keep pushing at what’s next." Finish strong.
"I've worked for a lot of Democratic candidates,
but it's really all about getting people to be part of the process.
Get out to vote. Know what matters to you and dig in, dive deeper.
Right now is a critical time in all levels of government. If you know
someone who isn’t registered to vote . . . register them.
Exercise your right."
For more stories about CSBS faculty, students and alumni, visit csbs.uni.edu/magazine.