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Heidi Hall '12 is one of 19 Willamette undergraduates doing an internship this semester at the Oregon State Capitol.Heidi Hall '12 is one of 19 Willamette undergraduates doing an internship this semester at the Oregon State Capitol.

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Capitol interns gain valuable political and professional experience

Perhaps two of the most prominent institutions in Salem fall gracefully adjacent to one other, separated only by State Street and by the nature of their enterprises — but even those are not entirely different. 

Each semester, Willamette University undergraduates flood the halls of the Oregon State Capitol as they take advantage of the intimate proximity and ample opportunity to embark on an internship, pursuing common goals of accruing experience and networking in the field.

Politics Associate Professor Melissa Michaux leads a class of 19 students this spring, each working in a different position at the Capitol. Some are pursuing their second or third internship, and, according to Michaux, students sometimes even have the opportunity to propose legislation.

“The students get professional office experience and the ability to meet a wide range of people active in politics — not just legislators and their staff, but advocacy groups, business leaders and concerned citizens,” Michaux says. “They get exposure to the political process — both the nuts and bolts of how a bill becomes a law but also the art of persuasion and coalition-building.”

Stepping Into the Office 

Students enrolled in the class generally work with one senator or representative on a variety of tasks, such as writing policy memos, attending hearings, responding to constituent concerns, contributing to newsletters and tracking legislation.

“Most students come away from the experience impressed with the legislator they worked for and respectful of their hard work,” Michaux says. “The students connect with the concerns of the wider community — in districts both near and far.”

Jeffrey Short ’11 says that his time at the Capitol has given him not only a behind-the-scenes view of political work, but the interpersonal skills that will help him in any career path he chooses. Though he is a politics major, he says the experience can be valuable to students across disciplines.

“Apart from every citizen having the responsibility to understand our system,” he says, “things are happening in the Capitol that affect everyone, whether you’re interested in fiscal policy, education or any other issue.”

During his sophomore year, Short interned for Oregon Rep. Bill Kennemer. This time around, he says, he decided to try the other side of the legislature by working in the Senate minority office. His time is limited to ten hours a week, but he says he would do more if he could.

“The highly involved people have more fun and learn the most,” he says. “You get out what you put in.”

Politics and German major Salome Chimuku ’13 says that this internship (her second) is helping her to get a feel for the type of career she might seek in the future.

Chimuku worked with Oregon Sen. Chip Shields and Rep. Ben Cannon during her freshman year. She is now in the Senate majority office, where she aids the chief of staff in a variety of duties ranging from issuing briefs to communicating with the press director on bills.

“Sometimes my work will be a week-long project, and sometimes I’ll be putting out fires,” she says. “Because I do so many different things, I’m getting to know the legislative aides and senators, too.”

Heidi Hall ’12 is in her second legislative session working with Rep. Tobias Read ’97, a family friend who encouraged her first to enroll at Willamette, and then to try her hand at the Capitol. She says this familiarity, as well as having other students working nearby, makes the Capitol a comfortable place for her.

“It’s reassuring to see friendly faces,” she says. “The experience has definitely been one of my favorite things about Willamette. My internship makes my time at the university complete.”

The Total Package

Short, Chimuku and Hall each acknowledge the difficulty of conjoining a work schedule with the already-hectic class load of the typical Willamette student, but all three interns iterate the value of the juxtaposition of real-world experience next to the political science of the classroom.

“There are only so many things you can take away from a lecture,” Chimuku says, “but actual physical presence in the midst of the action is invaluable.”

“This way, we have both a professor and the legislators to guide us,” Hall says. “We can get out there and apply theory, but still come back and discuss the things we are learning.”