Capitol interns gain insight into service, political careers

by University Communications,

They provide constituents with needed information. They conduct research that influences policy makers, and they learn leadership and communication skills that jumpstart their careers.

Each year, dozens of Willamette University students walk across the street to the Oregon State Capitol, where they gain valuable work experience by interning with the governor, legislators and other state leaders. No other college or university in the Northwest offers such direct access to state government.

For some, the experience has spurred an interest in local politics, motivating them to become educated about community issues. For others, the internships helped them land their dream jobs.

Whatever the outcome, students and alumni alike agree that Willamette’s proximity to the State Capitol is a tremendous asset.

“I’ll be studying laws that I, in a way, helped pass,” says Caitlynn Dahlquist ’15, JD ’18, a legislative intern for Sen. Betsy Close, R-Albany.

“Now I know what legislative intent means and why bills go through different processes. I’m getting my foot in the door, if I ever decide to work there.”

Legislative Aspirations

Dahlquist, who’s majoring in politics and psychology, has long wanted to work with the state legislature. She found her opportunity by enrolling in Willamette’s Politics Internship Program.

Each semester, anywhere from a few to nearly 30 students enroll in the course, which pairs a class on theory with the practical experience of interning with either the governor or a legislator.

Participants work about 12 hours per week, attend periodic seminars and produce logs of internship activities. They also write a final research paper on a topic related to their experiences.

Dahlquist, who continued her internship after the course ended, tackles such duties as corresponding with constituents and managing the senator’s schedule.

“Being a part of the process is really exciting,” Dahlquist says. “It’s helped me direct my own goals.”

Besides the politics department, several of Willamette’s other academic departments help connect students with internship and research opportunities, including economics and history.

These connections between Willamette and the Capitol are invaluable, Close says, because they give students a better understanding of how government systems operate.

“The legislature is a microcosm of what they will deal with in their private lives,” Close says. “Education, health care, social services — they are getting quite an education.”

Working for the Governor

Joslin Schultz ’14 and Neha Mandava ’15 are both interning for the Citizen’s Representative Office for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

They research for the governor’s policy advisers, connect constituents to the resources they need, and draft letters on the governor’s behalf.

“We are the first line for communication with the governor,” says Schultz, an American ethnic studies major. “There’s a lot of weight in our words. We’re speaking for the governor.”

Schultz, who aspires to become a lawyer, says her internship has given her a window to understanding how government works.

“Even if I’m not directly working with policy, it has taught me how much thought goes into policy and rhetoric,” she says.

“I consciously analyze everything I’m saying, and I’m careful when I write template letters. I need to separate my opinions from the governor’s opinions.”

Mandava agrees, saying her internship inspired a research project in her Behavioral Ecology class.

Through her project, she studied the language used by the law, government, media, public organizations and scientists to describe the foraging behavior of California sea lions.

“The Oregon government has granted permission to haze and kill sea lions that eat salmon in the Columbia River,” says Mandava, who’s double majoring in biology and politics. “I have received a lot of calls at the Governor’s office from people who have strong opinions about this.”

Going Places

For Randy Ealy ’91 and Martha Bennett ’89, their own internships at the State Capitol led to established careers in politics.

Ealy interned for two state senators and now works as the chief administrative officer for the City of Beaverton.

And Bennett — who interned with the League of Oregon Cities — has since become the chief operating officer for Metro, an elected regional government for the Portland metropolitan area.

Ealy credits his internships for giving him “the city manager bug.”

“If you’re looking at a career in public service, Salem is where you want to be because of your access and the great partnerships the university has with the Capitol and the Legislature,” he says.

Bennett agrees, saying the skills she acquired through her internship continue to help her to this day.

“Relationship building, fast research projects, finding common ground — I need to understand where people are coming from to get stuff done,” she says. “Willamette is like a living laboratory. All that stuff you are learning about in class, you go across the street and experience it.”