UGA's new Washington Semester Program makes a D.C. experience available to any undergraduate
It’s almost 7 p.m. on a warm September evening by the time Lucas Puente gets home from work. He’s just in time for the pizza delivery and finishes a slice as a text message comes in on his cell phone.
He’s needed back at work. After another slice and some conversation with his roommates, he heads back across the street to the Hart Senate Office Building.
By morning he will have helped compile a research document on the proposed $700 billion bailout of the financial service industry—research his boss, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, may use in discussions with other legislators or in Senate hearings.
It is the kind of work you’d expect of a seasoned legislative assistant. But Puente is a student intern who has been on the job less than a month.
“They kind of threw us right into the fire,” Puente says with a shy grin. “I’m glad I’m getting to do more substantive work.”
Puente is one of 11 students enrolled this fall in UGA’s Washington Semester Program, which began in January 2008. Structured much like a study abroad program, it gives students an opportunity to live in the U.S. capital city for four months while earning class credit and doing an internship in a government office, a nonprofit organization or a private business.
For the university, the program is a way to expose more students to the career opportunities available in Washington and over time build up the representation that UGA has in the U.S. House and Senate and executive offices. Fifteen students participated in the program during the inaugural semester. Twenty are signed up for the coming spring.
“This is our bench, this is our minor league,” Chris Carr (BBA ’95, JD ’99), chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, says of the students. “If anybody is interested in what life is like on the Hill I can’t encourage them enough to do this.”
Do you want a tour or do you just want to take pictures?” Zach Matthews asks on the way from the Russell Senate Office Building, where he works for Isakson, to the Capitol. One of an intern’s tasks is to lead constituents on tours of the Capitol and surrounding areas.
He points to a chandelier in the small rotunda. It has 14,000 crystals and cost $1,500 when it was purchased in the mid-1960s. “It now costs more to clean it than it did to buy it,” says Matthews, an economics major from Jackson, Miss.
He’s a walking encyclopedia of the U.S. Capitol building, pointing out statues and architecture and telling stories as he moves through the hallways and into the grand Rotunda. He looks toward the ceiling. Up there, he says, are a few very small offices, where senior members of the House and Senate sometimes go to work in private. As he points, two tiny dots appear above a high railing—evidence of people visiting the hidden rooms.
His work space in the Russell Senate Office Building, named for former U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia, is less exciting. His is one of a bank of computers against a wall in Isakson’s back office. Three other young men—two students and one recent graduate—work alongside him. They talk politics and football. Their duties range from fielding calls and responding to constituents’ e-mails to attending legislative hearings. The day before, Matthews sat in on a House hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and compiled a memo summarizing the session for Isakson’s top aides.
The significance of the work does not escape him.
“This past week rivals the Great Depression or World War II,” he says. “To say 50 years down the road I was there is something.”
Isakson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, has staffed his office with student interns since he arrived in Washington as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999, and he uses them as much more than telephone receptionists and mail sorters. One of his first students, a UGA agriculture major, introduced Isakson to UGA researcher Steve Stice, for whom the intern also had worked. Stice was instrumental in helping Isakson draft a bill on embryonic stem cells that was approved by Congress.
Isakson takes an individual interest in each intern, assigning them work based on their area of study or interest. For example, a journalism student might sit in on the senator’s interviews with the national media.
“They’ll do a lot of research that’s in my briefing book the night before (a vote),” Isakson says. “I use them as a resource. They’re very valuable to me.”
UGA has a long history of sending summer interns from the honors program to the Capitol. And some schools and colleges, such as the School of Public and International Affairs and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, send individual students as interns.
The year-round program, which is run by the office of the vice president for instruction, is open to all undergraduates and creates a more consistent UGA presence in Washington, says Griff Doyle, the university’s director of federal relations. Other schools, such as Cornell, Stanford, and the University of Texas, have long had year-round programs in the capital city and some even have facilities there to house and educate their students. Schools that have programs in Washington tend to have more alumni there representing their school’s and state’s interests, Doyle says.
“This opportunity is a slam dunk for anyone interested in government,” he says. “A high quality, hands-on learning experience in our nation’s capital appears to be something all of the great universities are committed to.”
In addition to working for U.S. senators and representatives, students this fall also are working at the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Center for American Progress, the Washington office of UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security and the State Department.
Just like regular employees, the students must undergo any required background checks and security clearances before they start work. Most wear name badges that give them access to their offices.
Bill Hayes, an international affairs and telecommunications major from Buford, who is working at the State Department, has a state department e-mail address and a secret clearance.
“You have to have it just to be, like, the maintenance man,” he says.
Hayes, Puente and Bryan Strickland, a political science major from Norcross, share a two-room apartment at the Congressional, a furnished apartment building on Capitol Hill where UGA leases space for the program. Across the street from the Senate office buildings and just a few blocks from Union Station, the Congressional provides students easy access to work and play. Students with rooms on the west side of the building have a view of the Capitol dome.
While most of them were strangers before arriving in Washington just after Labor Day, the students have become fast friends, exploring nearby Pennsylvania Avenue for inexpensive restaurants and touring the myriad free sights in D.C.
They’ve learned the secret to cheap eats—legislative receptions, which are held in abundance when Congress is in session.
They’ve also found a bus service that runs between D.C. and New York City—“Chinatown to Chinatown,” says Ansley Fox, a political science and international affairs major from Savannah—for $17 roundtrip, and they planned to take advantage of that at Thanksgiving.
For most of them it is a pivotal year—the first time they have been old enough to vote in a presidential election. That, as well as their close proximity to the political action, makes debate-watching parties a must.
“There has been a little bit of bickering over politics, but we’ve been pretty respectful of each other’s opinions,” Puente says. “This is the first time I’ve ever been emotionally invested in a candidate.”
In addition to work and exploring the city, the students also take a weekly class in government ethics, taught by Joel Clark, director of the University of California-Berkeley’s Washington Program, and gather frequently to hear guest lecturers. In September, they met in a conference room at the Capitol for a roundtable discussion with chiefs of staff for four Georgia senators and representatives.
UGA alumni in Washington serve as mentors to the students, helping them learn the ins and outs of D.C. and hosting events at their homes. On football Saturdays, the students sometimes join the D.C. Dawgs at a bar in Penn Quarter, a trendy section of downtown Washington.
It’s about 50 degrees and windy— the first real hint of fall—on a September morning when Sharon McCoy, an international affairs and Spanish major from Evans, leaves the Congressional for her commute downtown to the Center for American Progress. She makes the 10-minute walk to Union Station and catches the red line to Metro Center. From there, the office is a two-block walk.
McCoy goes to her desk—really a table in the copy room that she shares with another intern—and turns on her computer. Her first task is scouring Web sites for news about Latino affairs in Spain, Mexico, Colombia and the United States. The other intern follows news from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. The work is interesting to McCoy, who has studied in Spain and Ecuador and will spend the spring in Chile on a study abroad program.
Once she finishes that, McCoy will continue work on her project for CAP—researching oil companies in Mexico and Brazil, which supply much of the U.S. oil. The internship builds on her academic work in international affairs and, she hopes, will help her decide what she wants to do as a career. Civil rights and foreign service are two areas that interest her.
“This is my interest area, where I can put my talents to good use,” says McCoy, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in the Netherlands and Italy. “But I’m not exactly sure where.”
Right now, she’s enjoying the fast-paced Washington lifestyle, the diversity of the city and the political culture.
“It’s still kind of surreal,” she says. “You wake up every morning and walk by the Capitol.”