Internships in the nation's capital lead to great career starts

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Appalachian State University alumnus Nathan Smith '09 knew as a student that he wanted to pursue a career in government policy. During his time at Appalachian, he got a chance to intern in the office of U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler through the prestigious Appalachian in Washington, D.C. Program. It was an experience that would help his career after graduation.

"Given the way my career has unfolded, the internship obviously opened my eyes to D.C. and federal policy and solidified that interest for me," said Smith, now a public policy associate for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "When I came to D.C., I was already familiar with state-level policy but my internship on the federal level helped me to decide that D.C. was where I wanted to start my post-college career. Now I've lived in D.C. for almost two and a half years, and I love it here."

The semester-long ASU in Washington, D.C., Program offers students important internship experience while they maintain full-enrollment status at the university.

Juniors or seniors with a 3.0 grade point average may apply to participate, and students can be from any major. They receive 12 hours of academic credit, nine through the internship and three for an honors class titled The Washington Experience. The class exposes students to the ins and outs of the D.C. political arena through tours of the Capitol, the Supreme Court and other locations, interviews with leading political players and more.

'Tons of Opportunities'

Two Appalachian students are interning in Washington this fall. One is psychology major Haley Grillo of North Babylon, N.Y., who is working at SOS Children's Villages-USA. She is involved with research and writing support for institutional partnerships and grants, marketing appeals and donor communications, and blogs on the development of the organization in different countries.

"The internship has given me tons of opportunities to learn new information, build upon my research skills, and network with others," said Grillo. "It's good to have a high GPA, but having actual experience, I think, is more important. From an inside look, it's helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses as an employee in this type of setting, and helped make my resume stronger."

History major Adam Martin of Mount Airy is currently interning in the office of N.C. Sen. Richard Burr. He leads tours of the U.S. Capitol Building, attends committee hearings and reports that information back to the office.

Martin hopes to transition to a career with the Department of Defense after he graduates and believes that his experience on Capitol Hill will give him an edge in the job market.

"I've had the opportunity to learn a lot about the legislative process and policies that affect everyone," he said. "I've also had the chance to network with a lot of people who can help me in achieving my career goals. Frankly, I feel that this program has given me a big head start in my career that I would not have had if I would have finished my course requirements on campus."

"Students need internships or other work experience on their resumes to be competitive, especially today," said Dr. Philip Ardoin, associate professor of American political institutions in the Department of Government and Justice Studies. Ardoin also teaches The Washington Experience course. "This program with the class strengthens their perspective, makes them stronger interns and gives them more understanding to stand out as interns.

"The course is critical to the internship experience," he said. "I wish more internship programs had courses associated with them. It gives them a chance to meet other actors in the D.C. policy process and broaden their understanding of the goings on in the city."

A Life-Changing Experience

Internship sites offer opportunities for students in majors ranging from political science to business to sociology, and everything in between. "The one thing I would really stress is you don't have to be a political science major to have wonderful experiences interning in your field in D.C.," said Megan Northcote, a senior double majoring in public history and anthropology who interned in the spring of 2011. "From the private to the public sector, there are opportunities for all majors."

Northcote interned at both the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. Her responsibilities at the Folklife Center included working in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, preserving, organizing and cataloging the papers of musician and folklorist Ralph Rinzler.

At the National Postal Museum, Northcote conducted and transcribed interviews with retired railway postal clerks, which will be added to the museum's Railway Mail Service online exhibition website. Additionally, she researched interesting facts about the Railway Mail Service for the project's Facebook page.

"I hope that students from all fields take advantage of the ASU in DC program because it has the potential to guide you into a life-changing experience," said Hilary Lovelace, who participated in the summer of 2009 before graduating in May 2011 with a degree in sociology, with a concentration in applied research methods and a minor in geography.

Lovelace interned with the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, working with the outreach team to keep housing advocates throughout the nation informed of housing policy at the federal level.

"This internship gave me the opportunity to find a career path that utilized the skills I attained in my coursework at Appalachian," said Lovelace, who is currently participating in Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE), an AmeriCorps program administered by the Community Service Center at the University of Oregon. "NLIHC made me passionate about policy and housing rights, which I still work with currently. The internship in D.C. helped me acquire really impressive recommendations that made me more competitive in related programs."

Before 2009, the ASU in Washington, D.C., Program was a part of a system-wide UNC in Washington Program, in which students from any UNC university could participate. Due to budget cuts, the system-wide program was disbanded, but Appalachian chose to continue the program on its own with support from the Division of Student Development and Academic Affairs.

"Appalachian probably took the program more seriously than most of the other participating schools, and the experience was obviously profound enough to change the course of my life and career," said Smith, reflecting on his time in the program. "Now that Appalachian has developed its own program, I can only imagine how enriching the experience must be."