Every summer, a group of Virginia Tech undergraduates head to the nation’s capital for Washington Semester -- an open window to the American policy process. 

The 12-week program at the School of Public and International Affairs in Old Town Alexandria combines an intensive schedule of course work, internships, and field trips that revolve around U.S. democracy and governance.

Students enrolled in Washington Semester receive 12 hours of academic credit for the program. Nine of those credits are for five substantive course modules. This year’s theme is “Government and Crises” and each module addresses a different dimension of this topic.

Three additional credits are given for an internship in a public agency or non-profit that is graded in conjunction with class participation.

Brandon Barr of Fredericksburg, Va.; Rachel Hurley of Urbanna, Va.; and Michael Niedzwiecki of Fairfax Station Va., all juniors majoring in political science, are interns for the Mobile Program Management Office at U.S. General Services Administration, a host employer for the second consecutive year. Created in 1950, General Services Administration provides services to other federal agencies in order to make government purchasing more efficient.

The students are working with Jacob Parcell of Alexandria, Va., a Ph.D. candidate majoring in public affairs/public administration at the Virginia Tech Center for Public Adminstration and Policy in the School of Public and International Affairs. With nine years of federal experience, Parcell currently serves as manager of Mobile Programs in the Mobile Program Management Office within the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at General Services Administration. The office focuses on helping organizations think about how they interact with the public using mobile technology.

Parcell regularly fields questions from federal agency representatives about mobile technology and has developed a federal community of practice so that agencies can compare notes with one another. When an inquiry comes in, he captures the question and answer on the office’s wiki so that the information can benefit other agencies.

The Virginia Tech interns are responsible for helping maintain the office’s social media channels which include a wiki, a twitter, and a blog. They also assist in planning and implementing educational programs about mobile technology for agencies across the federal government and in managing a new initiative -- the Open Opportunities program. This program focuses on mini-projects within General Services Administration that solicit expertise from other federal agencies. Throughout the semester, they will have the opportunity to attend executive meetings and to interact with other student interns in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

"In addition to keeping abreast of the latest mobile technology trends, the benefits of working with the Mobile Program Management Office include being able to see how government works on a day-to-day basis and how policy is made and implemented," said Parcell. 

There are also many valuable networking opportunities within General Services Administration and other agencies as well, he said.

According to Parcell, the Mobile Program Management Office decided to participate in the Virginia Tech internship program again because of such a positive experience working with a Washington Semester intern last summer. Justin Goldberger of Harrisonburg, Va., a senior majoring in political science, "did well because he was enthusiastic, followed through on project tasks, and asked good questions,” said Parcell. “Justin had all the traits we look for -- hard-working, creative, curious, and always going the extra mile on a task.”

Goldberger recently reflected on his experience at General Services Administration. “The internship gave me an unparalleled look into the workings of one individual agency within Washington’s network of organizations and it also provided a ‘front seat’ as digital government policy was being made,” he said. “Working for Jacob as part of the Washington Semester program gave me experiences that textbooks and academia fail to teach students."

Ten students are enrolled in the 2013 Washington Semester. In addition to Barr, Hurley, and Niedzwiecki, they are

  • Amanda Anger of Arlington, Va., a junior majoring in international studies, working for Arlington County Department of Human Services;
  • Simon Hallerman of Blacksburg, Va., a junior majoring in political science, working for U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;
  • Austin Harmon of Leesburg, Va., a junior majoring in economics; working for City of Alexandria, Office of Management and Budget;
  • Wanawsha Hawrami of Leesburg, Va., a junior majoring in political science, working for Fairfax County Department of Human Services;
  • Amanda Lemons of Roanoke, Va., a junior majoring in political science and economics, working for U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;
  • Matt Saunders of Ashburn, Va., a junior majoring in political science, working for U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Fund; and
  • Jack Scher of Richmond, Va., a junior majoring in political science, working for Project on Government Oversight.

Preparing for weekly classes requires dedication of substantial time outside of the internship, said Beth Offenbacker, Washington Semester director. Professors for the 2013 Washington Semester include: Matthew Dull, associate professor, Center for Public Administration and Policy; and Joel Peters, professor, Giselle Datz, associate professor, and adjunct faculty Paul Carver and Michael Signer, all in the Government and International Affairs program.

Field trips in and around the Washington, D.C., area are also included in the curriculum.