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Experience with government draws undergraduates to National Capital Region's summer session

April 19, 2016

Students  pose outside of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Washington Semester field trips to the nation's capital give students a glimpse of the effects of policy decisions and governance structures at federal agencies. One of the visits last year was to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

For 20 years the Washington Semester, a summer program that offers students an opportunity to learn about public policy in the nation’s capital and gain practical experience, has attracted Virginia Tech undergraduates to the National Capital Region. This year marks the 21st.

“In addition to internships in federal agencies from FEMA to the GAO, students work in NGOs with human rights missions and in local and regional governments that are uniquely integrated in security, emergency, sustainability, and resilience planning in the National Capital Region,” said Anne Khademian, director of the School of Public and International Affairs, which runs the Washington Semester program.

“Internships are not assigned arbitrarily but tailored specifically to each student’s particular interest and course of study,” said Andrea Morris, the program’s director. “It’s one of the things that makes the Washington Semester so appealing.”

Three students placed in local government agencies last year are good examples.

Because she is considering a career as an urban planner, Princess Holloman of Newport News, Virginia, a senior majoring in architecture and Spanish, was assigned last summer to work at the City of Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities. Jordan Lew of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a junior majoring in economics and international studies, interned in the Office of Management and Budget in the City of Alexandria. And Sydney Seidenberg of Richmond, Virginia, a senior majoring in fashion with minor in political science, went to Facilities and Design & Construction with Arlington County Government for part of the semester and then worked in the Arlington Office of Communications.

“In many ways, real world work experience is more valuable than what you learn in the classroom,” said Seidenberg, who wants to be a corporate lawyer in the fashion industry. “In both of the Arlington County offices I learned how interacting with other people and other departments is so important in the workplace, especially when you are trying to solve problems.”   

This is one of points the Washington Semester strives to get across, said Morris. “We try to make students understand that while you may be in a specific field it is important to recognize how whatever work you are doing impacts others. For example, if you are studying to be an urban planner, how will you build space? How will you provide transportation?  Policy effects every sector.”

At Facilities and Design & Construction, responsible for configuring and furnishing Arlington County offices, Seidenberg went to 15 buildings including libraries, fire stations, and an emergency call center to look at every office chair, fixture, carpet, stove top, and more and to record what items needed to be fixed or replaced.  When replacements were needed, she chose and ordered them. She said she was surprised by the amount of freedom she was given.

“In spite of my inexperience, my supervisors really respected my opinion,” said Seidenberg.

Lew and Holloman had similar experiences. Lew was put to work right away on a 16-page community profile that served as context for the City of Alexandria Approved Operating Budget for Fiscal 2016.

“They thought it would be good to get an outsider’s perspective,” said Lew, who researched and wrote about the city’s demographics, history, education, transportation, housing, and community services, to name just some of the categories.

At the City of Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, Holloman met with urban planners, designers, and archeologists. “I would describe my internship as a mixture of design, research, and communications. I learned how to write white papers in a government style, which I think will be very helpful to me in the future.”

Holloman said that in her senior year coursework she has been able to apply what she learned about code and zoning laws.

While students gain invaluable experience from Washington Semester internships, Jaimy Alex, the internship coordinator for the program, noted that their employers also have benefited. “It is really gratifying when employers reach out to me every year asking for student interns from Virginia Tech,” Alex said. “I think that proves how capable our students are and how well they represent us. We are very proud of them.”

Students from all programs and any discipline can apply to the Washington Semester as long as they have accrued 60 credits by the start of the program. In addition to internships, a number of seminars, lectures, and field trips for a first-hand look how government and policy work are part of the program, depending on whether the student chooses the six- or 12- credit option. 

All Washington Semester students are given an opportunity to hone skills in networking, interviewing, and building relationships. “This is a key component of the program,” Morris said.   

For more information on the program, contact Andrea Morris.

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