Washington, D.C. program offers first-hand experience

by Beacon Staff • October 15, 2008

While international student-travelers gallivant through Europe and aspiring auteurs hone their reels in Hollywood, Emerson has dispatched five undergraduates to Washington D.C. for the first time this semester.

The program hosts communication studies and journalism majors with an interest in government and politics, according to Communications Studies Department Chair Richard West. The program is a collaboration between Janis Andersen, dean of the School of Communication, and the David Griffin, the director of the international study and external affairs department.

Hopeful West-Wingers glimpse the government's inner workings through internships coordinated at the Washington Center.

Andersen and Griffin said they have begun evaluating what aspects of the program students say are working and what parts need improvement. Andersen visited the nation's capital two weeks ago to get feedback from students and make her own first-hand observations. She said she was greeted by five extremely grateful students.

"They were all ecstatic and so appreciative," she said. "It's such a fabulous experience for them."

Andersen said there were a number of minor complaints, most involving miscommunications between the college and the Washington Center, a non-profit organization that assists college students nationwide in finding Washington internships and other academic opportunities. Registration and scheduling were the two most common issues, she said.

"This is our first time through, so students can get caught in the middle," Andersen said. "Things don't always start perfectly."

West described the program as faculty-oriented, due to his department's involvement with the course curriculum and interaction with the students' internship advisers.

"This process is something we're co-creating," he said. "It requires both the students' and the college's efforts."

Each student is required to take a class with Emerson alum Peter Loge, class of '87, who also teaches at George Washington University. In addition to his class, they take at least one other course through the Washington Center, which is located approximately five blocks from the White House.

Loge, who graduated in 1987, said he's been in contact with Andersen for a couple of years trying to set up his portion of the program. He teaches a political communication practicum that all five Emerson students are required to take.

"The goal is to give a theoretical background in context to politics in Washington," he said. "We cover what it takes to carve out a career in this town."

Every other week, participants attend a guest lecture by visiting professionals from various Washington industries, which have so far included a Federal Communications Commission lawyer and House majority whip Jim Clyburn. Students are also required by the Washington Center to take part in a civic engagement of their choice, as well as their individual internships.

The civic engagement is meant to get students working directly on one of six issues, which include immigration, public health, environmental affairs, Israeli-Palestine peace, hunger, homelessness and campaigning for the current election, said Suzan Harkness, managing director of academic affairs at the center. The students are assessed on a reflection paper written when they finish their projects.

"We want students involved with something they can take back to their communities," Harkness said. "Something they're interested in and excited about."

Senior broadcast journalism major Katie Fox is interning at Tribune Broadcasting, where she assists in putting together video packages for small television stations across the country that don't have the resources to obtain Washington footage themselves.

"Through my internship, I got a press pass to Capitol Hill," she said. "I get to experience what I want to do in the real world, which is something you can't get in a classroom."

Fox said the only problems she encountered were due to what she felt was disorganization at the Washington Center.

Fox said said she was not given immediate information on her housing situation and was confused by the scheduling process.

Harkness said the scheduling and registration process usually goes through smoothly, but there was some miscommunication among Emerson, the center and the students this semester.

Junior Katie-Coral Horton is interning at the World Justice Project, an initiative the American Bar Association. She wrote in an e-mail that she performs administrative duties and takes part in communication projects with other countries, including India and several African nations. For her civic engagement project she is promoting the Emerson-created Web site BeAbsentee.org.

Though she lives far from her internship, Horton said she has almost no other complaints about the program.

"Living in D.C. is wonderful as there is always something to do, from a film festival to a hearing, to a seminar, to a happy hour," the political communication major wrote in an e-mail. "D.C. is full of people who want to change the world and are willing to put in the hours."

Senior political communication major Greg Gagnon said he had issues with both the Washington Center and Emerson this semester. Interning between 32 to 35 hours a week at the Progressive Democrats of America, he felt the extra activities and events students are required to attend weren't always necessary-one of which was a mandatory debate-watching party Wednesday night.

"I had worked all day, and I could have just watched it at home," he said. "I don't know why I had to go."

Gagnon also said the workload was significantly heavier than he had expected.

"I know it's a leadership program, but it can be a little too much," he said. At his internship Gagnon takes part in fundraising and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Later this month, the Progressive Democrats of America will send Gagnon to Ohio to campaign for Barack Obama, an opportunity he is eager to experience.

One of the best parts of the program is the connections between alumni and current undergraduates, Andersen said. She said networking is one of the most important skills the students would learn in Washington with the help of Emerson alumni

Fox said making connections to professionals is one of the best parts about the program.

"Networking is one of the most important things you can do here," she said. "You differentiate yourself by who you know."

Andersen said she had been hoping for a few more applicants last semester. The goal was to send 10 students to Washington, though she eventually would like to see 20 students attend.

"The economics would've worked better if we had sent 10, because now we're spending a lot of money on five students," she said. "I would like to see the program as [competitive] or more competitive than the castle."

West, who will visit the students next week, said though he has no specific goals in place for the program, his focus is on getting as much feedback as possible.

"My only measure of success for this program is the degree to which students feel they got something out of it," he said. "So for now, my goals are humble. I

'm a realist, and I know the first thing we need to do is take care of any kinks in the program."