Three months ago, I was in an Ohio college classroom, studying American government and organizational leadership, while my future mentor was in the Washington office of a nonprofit public policy organization. Thanks to a D.C. internship program, we have been brought together for several months to work, collaborate, learn and expand horizons.
A college junior, I now spend my days researching issues ranging from public finance to higher education dropout prevention, while making the rounds of Washington think tanks and advocacy groups, going to book receptions and press conferences, and attending events with former presidents and other leaders. I've been able to see the inside workings of government and gotten to know researchers and other policy professionals — experiences beyond my wildest dreams. My mentor, who hosts my internship, benefits from my research and logistical assistance, fresh perspectives and ideas, and firsthand connection with the next generation of workers.
Interning in Washington has been my longtime goal because it would enable me to not simply read about national issues but to work practically on issues I care about. My desires and experience are hardly unique, but the benefits of such real-world learning about U.S. democracy and the nation's many challenges could be spread far more widely among college students and young people. At a time when we desperately need to motivate student learning, increase college graduation and enhance young people's workplace and citizenship skills, why not build an "Intern for America" program?
Every year, tens of thousands of students come to the nation's capital to enhance their education, gain on-the-job experience and hobnob with D.C.'s policy glitterati. Beyond the starry-eyed experience of walking past the White House for the first time while heading to work, Washington internships help develop many skills to get a first job out of college. While other internships can be valuable, interning in Washington is unique in giving students a sense of citizenship and public service, not to mention teaching them how our political system works and giving them the chance to be a participant, rather than a spectator, in American history.
Somewhat like joining the armed services or the Corporation for National and Community Service, D.C. internships provide something that is sorely lacking in much of modern America: a way of connecting with, and helping to improve, the nation that has given us so much. It's easy to be cynical about government and blow off public service, but the essence of citizenship is to actively serve our country.
Washington experience is valuable, of course, if your career goal is government or the nonprofit world, but it's also beneficial if one is headed to the private sector. Interning in D.C. offers perspective on what John Kenneth Galbraith called the "countervailing powers" of American society — of how government and business influence each other.
Not every student can come to Washington, but we should encourage and make it easier for many more young Americans to spend a semester or summer in the capital. If internships offer a superb opportunity for real-world learning, skills development, citizenship and service, why don't colleges and universities take measures to encourage it? And why can't government (or business) make it more financially feasible?
Colleges could take several steps. They should develop, offer and promote more internships. Colleges need more counselors to help students find good matches, reflecting the broader need to assist students in making school-to-career transitions. Under faculty supervision, students should receive a semester of credit, given mutually agreed upon student objectives, tasks and academic products.
The government, which wants to increase America's long-stagnant college graduation rates, should see internships as a motivator for college completion and a vehicle for building the skills of future workers and more engaged citizens. Existing internship opportunities in federal agencies could be significantly expanded. A national internship corps could be developed as a competitive, prestigious program to bring thousands of students each semester to Washington or state capitals. This Intern for America program could require a rigorous national application process and provide stipends for students (either as a carve-out from Pell Grants or separately funded by government and business). Finally, the departments of Labor or Education — working with firms such as Monster.com, which already has MonsterCollege — could create a national online internship clearinghouse for students to connect with organizations offering internships.
Internships represent one of those rare situations in which all parties benefit, through personal growth for students, talented assistance for D.C. institutions, higher graduation rates and student bodies better prepared to take on the world. It only takes a single semester, but the results can last a lifetime.
Emily Anstaett is a student at the University of Cincinnati interning with Public Agenda in Washington, D.C. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributing to this article is Andrew L. Yarrow, vice president and Washington director of Public Agenda, who teaches modern U.S. history at American University. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is email@example.com.