Eight undergraduate students from Virginia Tech traded the familiar setting of campus life in Blacksburg for a fast-paced real-world job experience in Washington, D.C., through the Virginia Tech Hokies on the Hill program.
While studying and interning on Capitol Hill during spring semester, they attended congressional briefings, conversed with and answered emails from constituents, contributed research and analysis, drafted legislative memos, gathered at receptions for staffers, and had the opportunity to interact with well-known political figures including former U.S. Sen. John Warner and former Rep. Tom Davis.
The students also toured the White House and learned about the history of partisanship in the U.S. Senate from Senate Historian Don Ritchie during a class session held on the Senate floor.
Among the students who came to Washington was Zoe Brilakis of Washington, D.C., a rising junior majoring in food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“I love Blacksburg but thought I needed a change. When I heard about Hokies on the Hill I decided that an experience like this would be an eye-opener to a world outside of college life. And it was. Participating in this program is a good way to test yourself while maintaining a certain level of comfort in knowing that you are still a college student,” she said. Brilakis, who was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee in keeping with her interests, confirms that you don’t have to be a political science major to benefit from this program.
“While many of the students who apply to Hokies on the Hill are political science majors, we really encourage applicants from across the board. Federal law directly impacts agricultural policy, engineering and science research opportunities, defense strategies – really every subject area one can think of,” said Chris Yianilos, director of federal relations, who is based in the National Capital Region.
Yianilos was instrumental in initiating the program in 2010 at the request of Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger.
Steger said he is “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.”
Courtney Thomas, internship director for the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, was asked to serve as the coordinator in Blacksburg for the 2012 program. She helped advertise the program, coordinate the information sessions held on campus fall semester, and review applications with Yianilos.
The students receive 12 credit hours for the program by working a full day Monday through Thursday and attending a Friday seminar which includes guest speakers; visits and tours with government officials; and seminars and discussions with Yianilos on topics like the budget deficit, health care reform, the interaction between Congress and the media, ethics and integrity in government service, and legislative strategy. During the seminars, the students are also given the opportunity to talk about their individual experiences.
“I believe that the Hokies on the Hill program is one of the most valuable opportunities available to undergraduate students at Virginia Tech. In the course of a single semester they have the chance to see how the knowledge they have acquired in their course work prepares them for the challenges of professional life in the nation's capital, and to share their experiences with the students in their cohort so that they may learn from each other even as they learn from their internships,” Thomas said. “I am proud to see how the students have grown intellectually and distinguished themselves professionally. I look forward to working with the program in the future.”
“Working on the hill often fosters and supports the students’ career choices and goals,” said Yianilos, who speaks from experience. 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.
For Wanawsha Hawrami of Leesburg, Va., a rising junior in political science legal studies, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, working in Rep. Jim Moran’s office brought her close to an issue that holds personal concern for her -- human rights. Hawrami, who is looking to a career as a human rights lawyer, helped organize a Kurdish Center for Cultural and Contemporary Studies event, the screening of a documentary about the Kurdish genocide under Saddam Hussein, which was hosted by Moran. Special guest, Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government Masoud Barzani, spoke during the event and later shook hands with Hawrami. “Because I am from Kurdistan and have lost many family members in the Kurdish genocide, it was meaningful to me to be part of this opportunity to bring awareness to the issue,” she said.
“Some students are motivated to apply for an internship in hopes of eventually landing a full time position on the hill,” said Yianilos, “but others seek a once in a lifetime educational experience to learn first-hand how our government works.”
For the one Hokie on the Hill who graduated this spring, the program did turn out to be a stepping stone to a full time job. Colin MacDermott of Virginia Beach, Va., who graduated this month with a major in political science, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, interned in Sen. Jim Webb’s office and has been hired on as a permanent staff member. “I was lucky in that I had the opportunity to speak with Sen. Webb on a few occasions and I felt we had a good rapport. I am very happy to be going back to D.C. to work for him.”
MacDermott has also participated in Virginia Tech’s Washington Semester, a 12-week program offered by Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, in Old Town Alexandria, Va.
“I would encourage every student to take advantage of the opportunities Virginia Tech offers to work and study in the nation’s capital,” he says. “I would go so far as to say it would be foolish to pass them up. There is just no substitute for this kind of first-hand experience.”
The students who worked for elected officials agree that one of the eye-openers of working on the hill is realizing how many constituents there are out there with so many differing but passionate views. And because each and every constituent is important, they learned they must put personal views aside when communicating with them.
Megan Knodell of Ashburn, Va., a rising senior in political science, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, spoke enthusiastically of her work at The Clark Group, an environmental consulting firm specializing in government relations. She worked on fact sheets on the Wetlands Reserve Program for specific states which helped the group’s lobbying efforts. Like all the other interns, she went to briefings on the hill and wrote reports. “I never once felt like I was doing busy work,” said Knodell. “I always felt I was working for a purpose and that I was a real asset to the firm.”
In addition to Brilakis, Hawrami, Knodell, and MacDermott, four other students participated in the Hokies on the Hill program this spring:
- Erinn Dye of Herndon, Va., a senior who is majoring in political science and psychology, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Science, worked for Holland and Knight, an international law firm with a strong federal government relations team in Washington, D.C.;
- Sama Ehtesham of Lynchburg, Va., a rising senior, double majoring in philosophy and religion and culture, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, worked for Sen. Mark Warner;
- Christine Goodrich of Annapolis, Md., a junior, majoring in political science, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, worked for Rep. Frank Wolf; and
- Meagan Merryman of Fredericksburg, Va., a rising junior, political science, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, worked for Rep. Rob Wittman, who earned a bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech in 1981.
Yianilos said that the program’s success over the past three years is not based solely on value to the students. “Hokies on the Hill seems to be a win-win for the students and the offices that participate. I have been told on more than one occasion that our students are some of the best interns an office has ever had,” said Yianilos.
Hawrami said that she and other students in the program were impressed with how many Virginia Tech alumni they met on the hill during the internship. “It seemed that no matter where we were – in the office, at a briefing or reception -- there seemed to be someone who had gone to Virginia Tech. The eight of us were just a few of the many hokies on the hill,” she said.
Hokies on the Hill will continue spring semester 2013. Slots are limited and the application process will begin in the fall. To learn more about the program, contact Chris Yianilos or Courtney Thomas.