March is just around the corner, and as the weather starts to warm up, college students across the country are beginning to think about lining up internships for the upcoming summer. These students will soon find out that it will be more difficult to secure a position this year than in years past. Two years ago, the economy was charging ahead full-steam on its longest expansion in American history, but this year reports of layoffs have littered the newspapers. In light of financial uncertainty, private institutions, which usually recruit qualified undergraduates each year, have indicated less demand for new employees. Job openings at private companies, law firms and financial consulting firms will be scarce and fiercely competitive. Unfortunately, this means that internships in the private sector may not be an option for many undergraduates, but those of you who are thinking about applying for an internship this summer should not lose all hope. The good news is that incredible internship opportunities remain plentiful in the public sector, and the Office of Career Counseling (OCC), one of the best-kept secrets on the Williams campus, is there to help.
If the public sector is an option that you want to explore, there is no better place to look than the hub of our nation’s government, Washington, D.C. Last spring, I had my heart set on applying to work in this very city. Although I applied for my internship independently, Ron Gallagher, coordinator of internships at the OCC, helped to tweak my resume and cover letter to near perfection and encouraged me to apply for the alumni-sponsored Mead Internship Program, which ended up funding my summer. With his help, I was packing my bags for Washington at the end of last June anticipating my six-week Mead-sponsored internship. At the time, I didn’t have a clue that I was going to have the most eventful summer of my life. After all, I was going to be an intern, and that meant they would have me mail-opening or cabinet- filing all day, and in my spare time they would make me fetch jelly donuts and cups of hazelnut coffee. My experience, it turns out, would entail much more than that.
On July 2, I arrived at the Senate office of Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, the five-term “silver fox” who has managed to stay out of the public limelight but nonetheless has remained surprisingly effective behind the scenes. Although I opened hundreds of pieces of constituent mail and answered front desk phones from the beginning of my internship, I soon discovered that the bulk of the excitement on Capitol Hill lay outside the office.
It is a common misconception that the action in Congress takes place on the Senate and House floor, but most of the action is actually found in the committee hearing rooms. These rooms are where congressmen question, listen, and often argue about issues pending in current legislation. I attended committee hearings on issues as varied as racial profiling, missile defense and predatory lending. I also watched sessions during which the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned DEA head Asa Hutchinson and FBI director Robert Mueller, both of whom were up for confirmation. The Senate later confirmed both. I saw Alan Greenspan update the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee on the current state of the economy, Donald Rumsfield discuss with the Senate Armed Services Committee his plans for military restructuring and even actor Ben Affleck give testimony to the Health, Education and Labor Committee in support of embryonic stem-cell research (and some interns even tookpictures with him).
Once I discovered the intern speaker series available to congressional interns, I began attending seminars regularly. Over the course of six weeks, I saw Rev. Jesse Jackson preach about the ideals of equality of opportunity, Secretary of State Colin Powell speak on the importance of international trade in spreading the seeds of democracy, and Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer reminisce about playing catch with the president on the Rose Garden lawn. Most speakers were inspirational. Many spoke of the importance of choosing a career in public service and encouraged us to pick a cause that we believed in and fight for that cause.
Perhaps the most exciting part of being on Capitol Hill is the occasional brush with fame that leaves you dry-throated. I would never have dreamed that Orrin Hatch would greet me good morning, that Pat Roberts of Kansas would invite me into the senators-only elevator, that Secret Service agents would push me out of the way to make way for Vice President Dick Cheney, or that on my way to the bathroom Hillary Clinton would whisk past me.
I have no doubt that if students knew that an intern’s life in Washington was this exciting, it would be their top internship choice. Even in a good economy.