A Capitol Project
by Carolyn Shea
Evergreen’s Interns make their mark on Olympia.
When the gavel came down to signal the opening of Washington's 61st legislative session last January, a group of Evergreen students was among the throng assembled beneath the capitol dome.
This contingent was made up of 19 juniors and seniors who had been admitted into the prestigious Washington State Legislative Internship Program. They traded their jeans for suits, and their casual college campus surroundings for the fast-paced officiousness of the Capitol campus to gain a rare, hands-on experience in the laboratory of democracy.
Students accepted into the bipartisan program work during winter quarter, when the legislature is in session. Interns join the staffs of the senators and representatives, and spend their time fielding constituents' concerns, attending committee hearings and other meetings, researching issues being considered by lawmakers, tracking the progress of proposed bills and filling in on day-to-day office chores. "They need to be able to work with people across the political spectrum," says Senate Intern Coordinator Judi Best '90, MPA '92, who organizes the program along with her counterpart in the House. "We've had Democrats working for Republicans and Republicans working for Democrats."
The legislative internship provides on-the-ground training that no textbook can possibly convey, exposing students to the many variables involved in passing laws, and immersing them in a process few people fully comprehend. As observers and participants in the daily workings of the legislature, they learn firsthand about governance in action, an experience that allows them to synthesize political theory and reality.
At the same time, the interns become important contributing members of legislative staffs, providing valuable services that move the process along. They work a full-time schedule in exchange for a monthly stipend, undergraduate credit, marketable skills, professional development and more.
While receiving an education not available in the classroom, they do not entirely escape the classroom. They attend weekly seminars and workshops, which are put together for them by Best and Samantha Barrera, the intern coordinator for the House, working with faculty member Cheri Lucas-Jennings, who coordinates the Evergreen program. They're able to share their experiences with the other interns, vent and get advice. They learn parliamentary rules and procedure and how to write for the legislature.
The program offers panel discussions and meetings with state officials, lobbyists and reporters. In workshops, interns participate in a budget exercise, a mock hearing and a mock floor debate. In simulated committee hearings and floor sessions, the interns are assigned roles as bill sponsors, committee members and interest group representatives. They work bills through a mock House or Senate Hearing. They "become" senators or representatives and work bills on the floor, coming as close to reality as is possible without being elected to office.
Interns must also fulfill academic requirements, which include completing a major research paper and keeping a journal. Their work is evaluated by both field supervisors and faculty sponsors. "We take their goals seriously," says Best. "We try to give them the resources they need to accomplish those goals. We don't want them to leave with regrets."
Aside from the educational and service components, the program gives interns the chance to hone in on their career plans. Some, like Ian Wesley, find that what they wanted to do coming into the internship is not what they want to do when they get out. "I started wanting to work for an environmental nonprofit," says Wesley, a Senate intern and environmental science major. "Now I want to work in government."
Others, like Dixon McReynolds, see more specifically where they fit in or how to accomplish their goals. A senior from Tacoma and the student trustee on Evergreen's board of trustees, McReynolds interned for Sen. Adam Kline (37th District). He met with many constituents in Kline's Seattle district, learned about their concerns and brought those concerns back to the Senator. McReynolds, a retired Air Force veteran, has been heavily involved in helping homeless veterans and families for the past seven years. During the program, he made a point of meeting with other members to get advice. "I was able to talk to lots of legislators about the best way to affect change," he says. Because of his experience, he plans to eventually run for public office. "I think I can do the most good as a legislator."
Among the program's most valuable features are the opportunities it affords for networking and the contacts students make each day in and around the capitol. "You meet a whole lot of people with different opinions about different things, including the people that make the decisions" says McReynolds.
The Washington state internship kicks off with a three-day orientation that includes instruction in legislative ethics, workplace practices, computer programs and current hot issues for the session. The 2009 legislative session was dominated by efforts to plug the state's budget shortfall.
Kelly Norman worked in the office of Sen. Margarita Prentice (11th District), the Ways & Means Chair, so she was keenly affected by the budget focus. "The budget situation made it super stressful," she says. "Most senators get calls from their constituents. Our office got calls from all over Washington." She was in the position of answering many of those calls. "It was the four most stressful and life-changing months of my life," she says, adding that the "most important thing I learned was what I did not want to do: be in state government."
The issues that come up during session inevitably expand interns' horizons. Katherine Hinderlie did research for several bills sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (36th District). "I learned a lot-and not what I thought I would have learned," she says, citing puppy mills and taxes as two of the subjects about which she became knowledgeable. The first was the focus of a bill to regulate commercial dog breeding facilities known as puppy mills, which was signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire. Sen. Kohl-Welles also introduced a bill to institute a one-percent tax on the state's highest earners, with the proceeds being applied to education. This measure did not pass, but Hinderlie says, "I learned about tax systems, which was much more interesting than I expected."
Selected by a competitive process, legislative interns do not have to be political science majors. "Probably half are political science majors; the other half are everything else," says Best, the senate student coordinator, who is a liaison between students and their faculty sponsors. The last group of Evergreen interns studied a range of subjects from philosophy to history to environmental science-plus political science.
Washington's state legislative internship program is thought to be the nation's oldest. Launched in 1955, it has served as a model for other statehouses across the country. Each year, it receives about twice as many applicants as it can place. Last year, it accepted 80 upper-level undergraduates from colleges and universities across the state; one quarter of them were Evergreen students.
To commemorate the program's 50th anniversary, the House of Representatives adopted a 2005 resolution honoring "the accomplishments and contributions interns have made," adding that they "have provided legislators with a measure of youthful energy, current academic insight, and hours of helpful assistance in serving their constituents and the citizens of Washington State."
When the 2009 regular session of the state legislature adjourned last April, Evergreen's interns left as better-informed citizens. Their career paths were more certain. And their input had benefited the far-reaching work of the Legislature. "It was a magnificent experience," says McReynolds.