Politics is nothing new to Madeline Hennings of Gibsonia, Pa., a rising senior majoring in political science and communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, who has volunteered for local and state political campaigns since high school.
But, working in Rep. Frank Wolf’s office this past spring as part of the Virginia Tech Hokies on the Hill internship program, she says she finally got to see what it means to serve as an elected official and how the legislative process really works.
“This was just the kind of experience I wanted and needed to affirm my interest in politics,” said Hennings, who was tasked with everything from answering the phone to writing letters to constituents to attending briefings and writing reports for staffers.
A highlight of the internship program for Sarah Rhee of Fairfax, Va., a rising junior majoring in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, was drafting a floor speech for Sen. Mark Warner recognizing Keith Prewitt as a Great Federal Employee. “My entire experience on the hill was amazing,” said Rhee, who was also trained to give visitor tours of the Capitol building. “I not only learned a lot about politics, but about life.”
Conor Hand of Floyd County, Va, a rising junior majoring in political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said that working in Sen. Jim Webb’s office made him realize “what a big influence the federal government has on Virginia. People in northern Virginia are so much more engaged in political issues than they are in other parts of the state.”
Hennings, Reed, and Hand all agreed that the experience of interacting with constituents -- many irate over hot-button issues of the day like health care reform, the budget deficit, the possibility of a government shut down, and war in Libya -- provided them a number of insights. For one thing, they said, you have to be extremely patient; arguing with a constituent is never allowed. They were also surprised that all constituent correspondence, even emails, must be answered by written letter.
This was the second year for the Hokies on the Hill internship program which launched in the spring of 2010 with the strong support of Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger and with the assistance of Chris Yianilos, director of federal relations, National Capital Region; and Professor Richard Rich, political science, Blacksburg. Yianilos worked for more than a decade on the hill, primarily as deputy chief of staff to Sen. John Warner, and got his start with a congressional internship he landed while he was a student at Virginia Tech. He said he is grateful for the opportunity to help lead the program and offer students this unique opportunity.
“The Hokies on the Hill program provides students with an amazing learning experience that can also prove incredibly valuable to their careers. Students not only get the chance to work in the U.S. Congress for a semester but they get to meet personally with current and former United States senators, representatives, and other government officials," Yianilos said. "Students also participate in weekly classroom seminars geared towards giving them a more thorough perspective of exactly what they are seeing and hearing first-hand every day in the Congress. Internships like these are an important first-step to a career in or around Congress and the executive branch.
"The program is successful, however, not just because of the value it brings for the students. We have found that the Capitol Hill offices that have participated in our program have been thrilled with the dedicated, hard work that the Hokie interns have provided. On more than one occasion I have been told that our students are some of the best interns an office has ever had. Simply put, the Hokies on the Hill program is a win-win for the students and the offices that participate," said Yianilos.
In addition to Hennings, Rhee, and Hand, four other interns participated in the program: Ausan Al-Eryani of Falls Church, Va., a rising senior majoring in political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, worked for Congressman Jim Moran; Alyssa Michnick of Darnestown, Md., a rising senior majoring in urban forestry in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, worked for the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture; Mai Lan Rodgers Lorton, Va., a rising senior majoring in political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, worked for Holland and Knight, an international law firm with a strong federal government relations team in Washington, D.C.; and Max Schick of Richmond, Va., a rising senior majoring in political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, worked for The Clark Group, an environmental consulting firm specializing in government relations.
All Hokie on the Hill interns earned six credit hours for working a full day Monday through Thursday and six credits for attending a Friday seminar associated with the internship. The topics of the seminars this semester included the budget, deficit, health care reform, the interaction between Congress and the media, ethics and integrity in government service, and legislative strategy. Students were able to earn additional credits through an online course or an independent study arranged through their department of study.
Guest speakers were also featured at this semester’s Friday seminar. They included: former Sen. John Warner; former Ambassador to NATO David Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Washington, D.C., who served as advisor to four presidents; former Rep. Tom Davis; Rep. Rob Wittman, who earned a bachelor of science degree in biological sciences from Virginia Tech in 1981; Sen. Mark Warner; Marty Kady, Politico; Carter Cornick, Cassidy and Associates; and Bud Krogh, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, one of the White House “plumbers” during the Nixon administration.
In an evaluation of the program, one student wrote: “The Friday seminars were great. It was a different type of educational experience, though. It is coming from people with first hand experience on Capitol Hill. It was truly a privilege to be in the presence of the guest speakers."
The interns also had an opportunity to meet with Steger who had a strong interest in launching the Hokies on the Hill Internship Program. "This program provides our students with real-world work experience in our nation's capital while at the same time allowing them to form networks that could be immensely helpful when they enter the job market upon graduation," said Steger. "I am grateful to the Virginia Congressional delegation and the other organizations that participate in this program for their continued, strong support of Virginia Tech and for providing our students an opportunity to serve them on Capitol Hill this past semester."
Hokies on the Hill will continue spring semester 2012. Slots are limited and the application process will begin in the fall. To learn more about the program, contact Chris Yianilos.