Student interns have a hand in state government

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Ten motivated UW Tacoma students with a yearning to experience government in action got the opportunity of a lifetime to take part in the 2010 legislative session in Olympia.

Ten motivated UW Tacoma students with a yearning to experience government in action got the opportunity of a lifetime to take part in this year's legislative session in Olympia. They helped legislators work on the daunting challenges facing our state government by conducting policy research, tracking bills, responding to constituents, drafting resolutions, participating in committee hearings and sometimes even helping to draft bills.

More students were selected to intern in the Legislature from UW Tacoma than from any other Washington college or university. This year UW Tacoma students made up 20 percent of the total number of legislative interns.

"The University of Washington Tacoma interns are some of the best in the program," said Samantha Barrera, intern coordinator for the state House of Representatives. "They have good writing skills; they're very professional. When working on projects like writing correspondence, their work doesn't need to be double-checked."

The internship is highly competitive and the program's screening process is rigorous. Interns are valued for their good communication skills, willingness to learn, maturity, solid work ethic, and strong research and analytical skills. Of 153 applicants this year, only 52 were accepted, 10 of whom were from UW Tacoma.

"The faculty and staff have done a good job preparing their students for this," Barrera said. "University of Washington Tacoma is one of the only schools where we don't go into classrooms to [recruit], and we still get a sizable number of applicants."

In addition to the legislative interns, nine other UW Tacoma students are engaged in government-oriented internships. They can be found in the offices of Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick (Idaho), U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the Washington Senate Democratic Caucus in Olympia.

Judi Best, intern coordinator for the Washington Senate, noted that UW Tacoma students have an exceptionally strong presence, thanks to the efforts of Katie Baird, associate professor of economics; Charles Williams, assistant professor of political science; and Chuck Rowling, a lecturer in political science.

"The faculty make all the difference," Best said. "If it were not for those three, the university would not have the representation that it does."

Williams attributes the ambitious zeal to the students themselves. "We have a lot of mature students who are motivated," he said.

Rowling added that the students who had been interns previously were the ones who really sold it, by telling their fellow students about the experience.

"There really is a way for the average person to be highly involved in the legislative process," said Jasmine Wolfe, a senior. "There are hundreds of normal people on [the legislative] campus every day promoting a cause, and the senators will and do listen to the people."

Wolfe routinely accompanies Sen. Val Stevens to caucus meetings, Rules Committee meetings and public hearings, as well as personally interacting with constituents.

"My experience with Sen. Stevens has been extremely valuable, and seeing her strong leadership has made me deeply respect and admire her," Wolfe said.

The students, who earn 15 academic credits and write a research paper, get a firsthand look at the inner workings of state government as part of the non-partisan staff for members of the House of Representatives or Senate.

"I spend a lot of time writing during this internship," said Christopher Pilch, who works for House Minority Leader Richard Debolt, Rep. Glenn Anderson and Rep. Norm Johnson. "Without the writing skills I learned at UW Tacoma, I would be unable to cope with the workload I am currently assigned."

The students often get to shadow legislators, participate in weekly academic workshops and seminars that include meeting with state officials, hold panel discussions and learn parliamentary procedures through mock hearings and floor debates.

"The legislators' job is not as easy as it seems," said Rita Housseiny, a senior who works for Sen. Joseph Zarelli. "We have to do a budget exercise where we try to balance the state budget ourselves. It's really hard."

Housseiny wants to take her learning experiences back to her home country of Lebanon, where she hopes to eventually become an ambassador to the United Nations.

"I think the students leave here with the skills and knowledge to make a difference," Judi Best said. "They understand the process. They don't just have the desire and enthusiasm to make a difference - they know how to do it."

by Todd Schlaudraff, editorial assistant

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Written by: 
Todd Schlaudraff / March 11, 2010
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu