Politics internships challenge students to compromise during COVID
Photo of the Oregon Capitol. By Anushka Srivastav.
For Politics, Policy, Law, and Ethics (PPLE) majors, internships are an integral part of a Willamette education. The department takes advantage of the State Capitol building’s location across the street by requiring majors to take an [internship credit], providing students with experiential learning opportunities that prepare them for careers in government. The emergence of COVID-19 has naturally posed challenges for this requirement and changed some of the instruction methods that have traditionally been used by the department. Offered this spring is the legislative internship class taught by Professor Rachael Carella. She spoke about the adjustments that she has had to make to the class in order to comply with COVID safety measures while ensuring students receive the best possible educational experience given the circumstances.
According to Carella, students in the class work in the legislature for eight to ten hours per week. Students meet once a week in a class setting, which will often feature guest speakers. “I’ve been able to get meetings with two senators, two representatives, and two former legislative staff, and I have a lobbyist as well coming,” she said. When they are in the legislature, students are expected to do a variety of tasks and writings in order to receive the credit. “Students will do things like attend senate hearings, or go to a committee meeting, meet with a constituent, maybe write a policy memo, things like that,” Carella explained. “It gives students not only a credit but it gives them this great legislative experience. They have the opportunity to see what it’s really like to work in the legislature, what the staff do, what the actual representatives and senators do.” Additionally, Carella noted that students in the class have the opportunity to make advantageous connections to help them in future endeavors. “They can make alliances and get somebody to write them a letter, perhaps find a job. For example, one of my students from two years ago is now working for the Senate majority leader.”
Legislative internships have traditionally taken place in the state capitol building, but COVID-19 has changed this precedent in the past year. Carella said that students have been completing most of their internship requirements entirely virtually. “There are a few people who go in [to the Capitol], most students don’t go into the Capitol at all at this point… It is a loss. I’m not going to pretend it’s not a loss. At the same time though, they’re still going to get the references and somewhat of the experience. They can still attend, for example, the committee hearings, it’s just virtual. They can still attend the debates, it’s just virtual.”
COVID-19 has brought about additional challenges beyond the location of the interns. When speaking about the modifications she has had to make to the class regarding the pandemic, Carella emphasized the difficulty students have faced getting internships. “We adjusted hours downward [from 120 to 100] because students were having so much difficulty getting positions,” she recalled. “Normally students are kind of on their own to get their positions. They have to reach out, send the resumes and the emails and all that. This year they did that, but the day we started class I could count on one hand which people had spots, and that’s not normal… So I took it upon myself to email literally every single senator and every single representative in the legislature because these students need this credit.”
PPLE major Mercedes Hamilton is a sophomore enrolled in the class who experienced the anxiety of not being able to find an internship first hand. “I started messaging legislators in early December about getting an internship for the spring, and because there were a lot of legislators coming into office and stepping out of office, it was really difficult to get anyone to respond. I still didn’t have an internship by the time the class started,” she said. “Then a lobbying firm we worked with in the past actually reached out to Professor Carella and I decided to apply for that because I was getting really worried. So I had that interview and me and my supervisor really clicked and it was a really good opportunity for me. So I’m working for CFM Advocates, which is a lobbying firm, as my legislative internship. It was a really stressful process because it’s really difficult with most of the session being remote to get responses, because emails do get buried.”
The difficulty of finding placements had significant consequences for some students, leading several to drop or withdraw from the class.“There were a few people who ended up having to drop the class because spots weren’t forthcoming,” said Carella. “There was even one student who had to get a W on his transcript, and he knew that might happen. Originally we had 22 or 23, and now we just have 18.”
Students have also had to make ideological compromises in order to get spots. “A number of students had to adjust what they wanted to get out of it in order to get a placement. Let’s say you really want to work for a particular political party but those spots weren’t forthcoming. So some students were like, okay fine I’ll work for the other side, so to speak, and that was a big compromise. Particularly 20 somethings are very passionate about their beliefs, so it’s a little bit hard to cross that aisle. So that has been a valuable, if challenging, outcome,” Carella described.
Despite these challenges, Carella said that she is satisfied with the way the class is going. She expressed that although most of her students have been unable to intern at the capitol in person, there have been other takeaways from the remote experience that will be beneficial for those enrolled: “On the one hand it’s terrible to have to do everything virtually. You don’t get to interact with the personnel, you don’t get to physically be there, you don’t get to do the normal things that you would get to do. On the other hand, you learn computer skills, you learn how to interact with people in a mode of interaction that really is the future. So in a way, they’re getting a step up on that.”
Hamilton echoed similar sentiments when she spoke about what she has learned from her internship experience. “I’m definitely learning a lot about the legislative process… And I think a lot of general office skills, like my formal emails have definitely improved, and just being able to keep organized… I think that for it being a completely remote internship, I’ve done the best I can to make the most out of it. My supervisor has been really great, and she tries to keep me included in things by hopping on phone calls or Zoom meetings with her clients and other legislators or lobbyists. So I think that overall, for being a remote session, it’s going pretty well. But I think it would be a cool experience to go into the Capitol eventually.”