Semester in D.C. offers capital connections

Students participating in the Penn in Washington program gain a true sense of day-to-day working life in the nation’s capital.

Group of students stands in front of two flags at the U.S. Senate
Penn in Washington’s Fall 2019 cohort on a tour of U.S. Senate offices, including Kaliah Spencer (standing, front right) and Ryan Rizzo (back, third from right). They met with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's legislative director Michael Brownlie, a Penn alum. (Image: Penn in Washington)

From the impeachment hearings to listening to constituents’ concerns to standing in line behind Bernie Sanders in the Senate cafeteria, students participating in the Penn in Washington semester program have gotten a true sense of day-to-day working life in the nation’s capital.

Penn in Washington’s semester-long program offers students with an interest in public policy a chance to live, learn, and intern in the heart of the federal government.

“I like the idea that college is a time to explore possible selves. During the semester program students meet dozens of people doing fascinating work and contributing to the common good,” says Deirdre Martinez, director of the program. “Through their coursework and their internships, they are acquiring skills and knowledge that prepare them to succeed in the public policy arena. If students decide they want more than a semester in D.C., they will know what their next steps are and will be uniquely qualified. If they choose another path after graduation, they will carry valuable lessons from their time in Washington.” 

The students work full days at their internships at a range of posts that include Congress, the Department of Justice, the Republican National Committee and other politically oriented offices, and the State Department, and then take classes a few nights a week at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement. The courses fulfill credits for political science majors and minors, as well as concentrations in Communication and Public Service, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Urban Studies, and more.

The cohorts are composed of 20 students or fewer each semester, which makes the experience personalized and gives participants a chance to have in-depth conversations with faculty and the real-world practitioners who come to their classes as guest speakers and develop close bonds with their cohort, Martinez says. Recent trends in Washington mean that interns are increasingly getting paid, she says, up to $15 an hour.

Past speakers include D.C. District Attorney Karl Racine, and current and former members of Congress, most recently Rep. Conor Lamb, Democrat of Pennsylvania, Martinez says.

Senior Kaliah Spencer, from New York City, interned at Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ office last fall, overlapping with the start of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump and the Democrat’s prominent role in the proceedings. It was particularly meaningful to work for Jeffries, she says, because she felt like she was helping with research that would directly affect her community in Brooklyn.

“Your impact is very tangible, especially on the Hill,” says Spencer, who is majoring in political science with a Hispanic studies minor. “They call interns the first line between the office and constituents. You are a representative of the congressperson and get to know issues and understand what the problems are.”

Her duties included writing memos, running errands, answering phones, and keeping track of constituent calls. One the most rewarding experiences was when she worked on an election with the Democratic caucus to fill a committee spot vacated after the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, in October, she says.

“It was great to couple the hands-on experience with the classes we took,” she says. “You learn so much in and outside of the classroom, and you get close to your cohort. It’s a great bonding experience.”

For junior Ryan Rizzo, interning for Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania was a chance to get some on-the-ground experience in his double majors of political science and economics. 

“The people teaching the classes have a wide range of professional backgrounds, not just academic, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to do the program, to get first-hand experience,” says Rizzo, a Philadelphia native.

Then there was the added bonus that Casey pays his interns, and the experience had a feeling of an abroad program but in D.C., Rizzo says.

In addition to administrative work and research, Rizzo gave tours of the building to constituents and attended lots of hearings on economic development and wealth inequality, two of his main interests.

He says he was heartened to see how many people work in Washington because they want to make a positive impact.

“I feel like people are really down on the government. They feel disconnected and like nothing is getting done,” he says. “But when you are there, you realize the people you are working with care a lot about the legislation they’re working on and do want to help people. You’re more hopeful because you see that most people in there really do care.”

Highlights for him were delivering a message to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office at the start of the impeachment inquiry and running into Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), during breakfast at the Senate cafeteria.

“We were in the same line as he was while he was getting a bagel out of the toaster. My friend asked to take a picture with him, and he was really nice about it,” Rizzo says.

In addition to sightings of famous politicians, the Senate cafeteria is also home, says Rizzo, to a real bargain: chicken fingers, 10 for $6.

A group of students stands in front of a large window with the U.S. Capitol behind them
Penn in Washington’s Spring 2020 cohort, including Diego Caceres, far right, at the Penn Biden Center. (Image: Penn in Washington)

The new cohort started their internships mid-January, and among them is Diego Caceres.

The sophomore political science major, who moved to Orlando, Florida, from Venezuela when he was around 4-years-old, is working with the Department of Justice in the Consumer Protection Branch. His work targets fraud against Spanish-speaking immigrants, which he says hits really close to home.

“I enjoy having the sense that I am doing something impactful for people, that it could maybe even help someone I know,” he says. After getting recent positive feedback on his work and learning how much it would move the case forward, he says, “I just felt really warm inside, having an added benefit of possibly helping people from my community.”

Doing the semester program enabled him to take the unpaid internship because he could still use his financial aid, and money earned through a work-study job running the Penn in Washington program’s social media accounts helps defray costs. He calls the program “FGLI-friendly,” referencing his status as a first-generation, low-income student. The program, says Caceres, supports students’ academic, personal, and social transition needs while facilitating community-building and a sense of belonging.

Caceres has been meeting with Penn alumni and learning about their career paths as a template for crafting his own, he says.

“It’s been great to take advantage of this opportunity as a way to explore career options, and it turns out I really love this legal internship,” he says. 

From the mentors he’s creating to the new friends from his cohort, Caceres says, “this program is creating genuine connections.”

Alumni who work in D.C. will be on campus Feb. 15 for DC Day@Penn, an opportunity to share their experiences and answer questions before the 2020-21 fall and spring program application deadline of March 15.