Politics and passion light up students’ experience in Washington, D.C. – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Politics and passion light up students’ experience in Washington, D.C.

The capital of the United States, the hub of world political power and influence, is also “a place that feels like it’s run by people under 26,” said Allyson Doherty ’08. “People my age are doing most of the real work around here!”

No one doubted that the HWS students spending a semester in Washington had some important work to do. After all, interning for the Department of Education or a member of Congress is a great experience, professionally and academically — but are the interns running the free world?

Not quite, but the work they do can be so closely involved in the day-to-day life of the political process that you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. “I work on Capitol Hill in the midst of where some of the most important decisions affecting the world are made,” said Preston Rich ’07. “One thing I have learned is how much the ‘Hill’ is like being on a college campus; Congressmen are divided by the year – ‘freshman,’ ‘sophomores’ and everyone knows everybody. (There are fewer members of Congress than members of the Classes of 2010 at HWS.) Most importantly, the place relies and depends on the many interns who take responsibility for the multitude of mundane and yet important tasks.”

It’s certainly a fresh perspective on this country’s political life, but it’s also a testament to how deeply involved students are in the annual Washington study abroad program, a mixture of internships and coursework this fall led by Professors Craig Rimmerman of the public policy faculty and Pat McGuire of the economics department.

The goal, said Rimmerman, is to “immerse students in the D.C. policy process,” through targeted internships, while offering an academic context that integrates the experience with a liberal arts curriculum. Students experience daily contact with Washington-based decision makers and analysts, plugging them in to the always frantic activity of the nation’s capitol.

This year’s students are spending their days in a wide variety of settings, from the Secret Service to Homeland Security, the offices of congressional representatives to non-profit think tanks and lobbying organizations. In fact, that’s one of the first requirements of the program: find an internship, immerse yourself, figure out what matters to you.

Being an intern isn’t all glamour, said Rich, who keeps things in perspective throughout his days at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Many people don’t just start at the top, but move through a series of promotions. However, I have managed to attend events that allow me to meet and talk with people such as Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Majority leader John Boehner, and of course Tom Reynolds, Chairman of the NRCC and Representative of my home district, NY 26. Some future projects that I have been training to do include Capitol tours and organizing political meetings.”

Other bodies on the Hill help to shape policy before it’s put into action: Doherty spends her weeks with the National Disability Rights Network, which helps to shape public policy on the behalf of disabled people. “I do research, go to congressional hearings and write articles for our national publications, among other things,” said Doherty. After graduation she hopes to find a career back in D.C., building off of her substantial experience with the important lobbying organization. “This is a great program,” she said. “It has opened a lot of doors for me.”

Vincent DeFabo ’08 found his calling with the House Committee on Homeland Security. “I think the best part of my job is summed up by my boss,” said DeFabo. “‘The Coast Guard defends the homeland with spears, we are defending it with legislation.’ As funny as this sounds, it is the truth. I really feel like what I am doing is enabling the Department of Homeland Security to protect us better.”

Even though he spends his days researching Homeland Security issues and legislation, helping to organize subcommittee meetings and pulling an occasional 11-hour day, DeFabo, like all of the other students in the program, also participates in a series of complementary courses designed to maximize the impact of his experiences.

“It’s very rigorous,” said Rimmerman. “We expect them to hold down a full-time job and participate in coursework, but the advantage is that we can integrate practical and contemporary policy issues and offer a more open syllabus based on current events and the experiences of the students.” Through the courses, students have met and listened to speakers from a variety of government offices and will soon have the chance to visit the Supreme Court to see Justice Stephen Breyer. “As a result,” said Rimmerman, “they are much more informed about a variety of issues and why people take those positions.”

McGuire, who leads a course on monetary policy and the Federal Reserve sees the difference as well. “What we teach becomes much more applicable to issues that our students see and feel,” he said. “They’re part of a process and that makes it more meaningful. We discuss decisions which effect every aspect of the economy, and they see the results of those decisions when they go to work in the morning.”

The true success of the program comes from the integration of all its elements. Students live, study and work together, sharing experiences that have a major impact on their intellectual life. “You get to see how everything is connected – my friend in the Department of Homeland Security has to deal with legislation passed by representatives on the hill – who my other friends work for,” said Doherty.

In the final tally, the liberal arts foundation provided by the Colleges’ curriculum becomes an enormous boon. The academic finds its relevance in the practical. “Our liberal arts tradition, our interdisciplinary emphasis makes our students ideal as interns,” said McGuire. The program has no trouble finding placements for students: “employers are amazed at the intellectual flexibility our students possess. It demonstrates the advantages we have at Hobart and William Smith.”

Images courtesy of Preston Rich ’07.