When Utah students Cindy Blackburn and Kendis Roney arrived in Washington, DC, three weeks ago for their internships in Rep. Jason Chaffetz's office, they expected a learning experience which could help them with their careers.
They didn't expect to get hit with both an earthquake and a hurricane their first week in town. And this was just the start of the excitement.
"DC is the Hollywood of politics," Blackburn said. "It’s an unpredictable place where any political celebrity can come in or out of any office at any time. As a political nerd, I am loving every minute of it."
Roney said, "One of the most important things I can do, is understand what is happening in the world around me. This internship for Rep. Chaffetz provides an opportunity to really see and understand not only what is happening, but also how it is happening. I am really getting a grasp of how this country runs.”
These are two of the hundred or so Utah college students starting this school year not on campus but in a DC internship in Congress, a Federal agency, think tank, lobbying group, non-profit, or elsewhere. USU's Institute of Government and Politics sent three students to the White House Correspondence Office this summer.
The main focus of the internship is forming "a connection of practical experience to their academic training on campus," said USU's Neil Abercrombie said. "Quite a few students say the line item they develop from their internship experience is a substantial item for landing their first job, whether it's a reference or otherwise."
Beyond that, interns learn politics, the legislative process, fundraising, office skills, and – most importantly – how to find as much free food as possible.
Scott Dunaway, director of BYU's Washington Seminar, said "It's very important to us is the students learn how to become effective civic participants. Everyone wants to change the world, but not everyone knows how to do it well."
Some students land internships through their own initiative or personal connections. Most go through their schools though: every semester BYU sends about 40, the U of U sends 35, and USU sends 10, with other schools such as Weber and SUU sending a handful.
The most famous student from the U's Hinckley Institute of Politics, Karl Rove, leveraged his internship into a lifelong professional relationship with George W. Bush. Arizona's Rep. Jeff Flake got his start through the Washington Seminar.
Now finishing up his last year at BYU, Alpine native Zachary Barrus interned this summer at the DoD's National Defense University. He hopes to return to work in DC, a town where young professionals can flourish.
"There are 25 year old recent graduates all over DC that tell senators what to do and what to say," Barrus said. "There are 24 year olds all over the city that help to host foreign dignitaries and engage in the beginnings of diplomacy. Government is not reserved just for the 60 year olds with millions of dollars."
Many interns do indeed parley an internship into a career, such as Layton native Teresa Ann Vanfleet, whom we profiled when she interned in Rep. Rob Bishop's office two years ago and has been here ever since.
"I often felt very insignificant as an intern; it can sometimes feel like you are easily dismissed as a second-class DC citizen because others immediately know you are temporary and at the very bottom of the totem pole. However, it's an excellent place to learn things not taught in the classroom," Vanfleet said. "Realize that a majority of people started out in DC as an intern – it's almost like a rite of passage."
Vanfleet now has interns of her own helping with various projects at the US-Asia Institute, where she works as a program manager.
"My biggest advice [to interns] is to willingly do anything that needs to be done, show initiative, and ask questions as much as you can as well as listen to other's experiences, which is the best way I've found to "network,'" she continued. "You will find out more about professional opportunities from those you work with and figure out ways to prepare yourself to be ready to reach your goals. Because, after all sometimes opportunities are what you make of them."