The University Record, July 19, 1993

D.C. interns learn on-the-job and get credit, too

By Laurie Fenlason
Office of Federal Relations

About 6:30 Monday nights, they start streaming into the University’s Washington, D.C., Office, carrying briefcases and loosening neckties, weary from a hard day’s work. But by 7:15 p.m., they’re gathered around the office’s long conference table, debating public policy, current events and Washington gossip with all the intensity of the McLaughlin Group.

Lobbyists? Congressional staffers? Journalists? Not yet. For the moment, these U-M undergraduates are interns by day and students by night, as they participate in the first-ever, full-credit course offered at the University’s three-year old Washington “campus.”

“Washington Research Seminar,” a.k.a. Political Science 592, is a classic combination of practice and theory; each of the 15 students, mostly political science majors, works as an intern at organizations as varied as the Republican Congressional Committee, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the State of Michigan office. Their daily work experiences, coupled with an intensive reading list, class discussions and writing assignments, form the basis of the course.

“A lot of times, political scientists lose sight of the fact that there’s a real world out there,” explains teaching assistant Ken Goldstein, who developed the course. “But at the same time, the real world often loses sight of the more rigorous, scientific ways of explaining how things happen.”

By analyzing the inner workings of Congress, interest groups and the media in the context of “real social science research methods,” Goldstein believes the course will help students bridge those gaps.

At the final class meeting, students will present papers based on long-term research at their internship sites.

Junior Elizabeth Suhey, for example, works for Common Cause, a grassroots mobilization and lobbying group, as well as for the office of a West Virginia congressman. Since Common Cause happens to be targeting this representative’s district as part of its voter mobilization efforts, Goldstein notes that Suhay has an unusual opportunity to research both the “input and output” of interest group politics.

Courtney Weiner, a junior and an aspiring writer, works in the newsroom at CNN, an experience that has deterred her from pursuing a career in newswriting but has given her valuable experience in the general practice of writing on deadline. Her research project, based on interviews with CNN Gulf War correspondents, will focus on media coverage of war and its impact on public policy.

Sophomore Scott Reizen admits that he caught the “Washington bug” when still in high school. As an intern at Americans for Democratic Action, a nonpartisan, liberal advocacy organization focused on social policy, his responsibilities include organizing and lobbying on behalf of the Campaign for Military Service (CMS), a coalition working to lift the ban on gays in the military. Using CMS as a test case, his research project will examine how interest groups balance political pragmatism with issues of “moral integrity.”

Most of the students in Goldstein’s course applied for their internships through the University’s Public Service Internship Program (PSIP).

Sponsored by the Office of Career Planning and Placement, PSIP has been placing U-M students in positions throughout Washington for more than 29 years. PSIP students meet twice a month throughout the academic year to develop resumes and practice interviewing skills, and learn to match their career interests with appropriate internships.

While in Washington, the 70 PSIP students live in a dormitory at George Washington University. After work, in addition to touring the city’s sights, they attend special briefings with members of Congress, the national media and federal agencies, as well as social events and softball games with other college intern groups.

A prospective lawyer, Shanetta Paskel is immersing herself in the practice of juvenile law as an intern in Washington’s district attorney’s office, a long-time sponsor of PSIP. Her duties include interviewing witnesses and confirming their court appearances, drafting subpoenas and writing formal court motions in collaboration with her supervising attorney.

Although Paskel opted to spend her after-work hours preparing for the law school admissions test rather than enrolling in the new Washington course, she believes she will come away from her Washington experience with considerable insight into the relationships among the capitol’s powerful institutions.

“I’m troubled by the severity of the crimes being committed here, but ultimately I’m seeing [juvenile crime in] D.C as a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country,” she says.

“Even though it appears that attorneys have a lot of control over their cases, no one person really has control,” she notes. “I’ve learned that it takes everyone—the attorneys, the judges, the public defenders, the witnesses and police officers—to make the system work.”