"The Washington State Legislative Internship changed my life. From this experience, I figured out what career I wanted to pursue and it opened up so many doors for my future."
If you must walk before you can run, what must you do before you fly? At first, you stand on the edge of the nest. You hop and your wings spread a little. Then slowly, surely, you spread them further and flap harder, catching the wind. With practice, you learn and soon you are soaring.
But mastering the skill does take time — 150 days worth, in the case of six young Saint Martin’s University students embedded last spring with the Washington State Legislature as interns under the Washington State Legislative Internship Program.
The students — all juniors and seniors, all women —spread their wings in what is considered one of the most demanding and coveted internship experiences in the state. Having a front-row seat to power, government and politics has matured them and, in some cases, altered the trajectory of their lives. They have a clearer understanding of themselves, of how the real world works and where the two might intersect.
“Washington’s legislative internship program is probably the most highly regarded nationally and has served as a model for other states,” says Roger Snider, associate professor of history and political science, and Saint Martin’s coordinator for the program. “It gives students an opportunity to see their democracy in action and, at some level, be a participant in that process. So, from the standpoint of both a student-scholar and a citizen, it enriches their development.”
The program had its start in the 1950s under prominent University of Washington political scientist Hugh Bone; Saint Martin’s became involved around 1970, Snider says. That Saint Martin’s snagged six of the 73 internship spots (four in the senate; two in the House) in 2015 is a school record — and a welcome surprise, since students applied independently of each other. Since political savvy is not a prerequisite, students from all disciplines apply and find the internship highly relevant and useful, Snider says.
Senior Jaime Rosenberg, a double-major in English and legal studies who plans to study law, agrees. “Up until the internship, I was not all that in touch with politics. But seeing how a bill becomes a law, seeing the law used and seeing it implemented into the system has been a huge learning experience for me.”
Senior Lauren Flynn-Burbage, a House intern, majors in political science. But as she points out, “It’s encouraging that interns come from different academic backgrounds because a lot of legislators don’t have a social science background. I think it makes for a more effective legislature because they’re all specialized in different areas and know what to do to help various agencies.”
Way back in her freshman year, Rosenberg heard Emily McCartan and Paula Rehwaldt, the Senate and House internship coordinators, give a presentation in class. She started planning to apply, and last fall, worked for months on her application with Ann Adams, the University’s director of career development. The payoff was landing an internship with Senate Majority Leader Linda Evans Parlette, a Republican for the 12th District, centered in Wenatchee.
Nothing — not even taking political science courses — prepared students for the grueling realities of the internship, itself. The six young women — poised, professionally dressed and confident — make Wonder Woman look like a sissy as they explain what their days were like and how the internship changed the architecture of their lives. Their internships began with orientation, a three-day crash course that covered everything from how bills become laws to legislative research and ethics, not to mention proper workplace decorum and phone etiquette.
Under the program, interns are assigned to a legislator — sometimes more than one — and they become paid, full-time staff members for the legislative session. They also earn academic credit. Their work in legislative offices is served up with side dishes of seminars, workshops and discussions with public officials, lobbyists and others who form the political process. Learning opportunities spill over into the evenings and weekends for interns willing and able to take advantage of them. Most try.
Lakewood senior Maria Villalpando-Ramos, a political science major, says, “Coming into it, I felt so dumb. I didn’t understand the whole process, so I just tried to listen and the legislative assistants helped me and gave me lots of advice.”
“The first days, the pace was hectic,” says Rosenberg. “Adjusting and learning to be a help and not a burden was hard. It took about two weeks to figure out the routine. You also have to get the office dynamics and learn how to read your senator.”
Most difficult, though, was balancing competing demands. Like circus jugglers, the six interns had to fit in a thousand responsibilities — legislative and university — each day, never quite certain what the day would bring or when it would end. Several also were finishing senior research papers. One — Rosenberg — was chronicling the experience in a blog.
One of the loneliest items in Nicolle Saucedo’s possession during her time as an intern was her Saint Martin’s dining card. Saucedo, one of the youngest interns at just 19, wanted to use it, but meals just didn’t work out. It was her first year at Saint Martin’s, where, by virtue of Washington’s Running Start Program, she compiled enough college credits during high school to enter the University as a junior. As an intern, she arrived by 8 a.m. at the domed State Legislative Building, where she worked for state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-11th District. If things went smoothly, she was out the door at 5 p.m., in time to reach her 6 p.m. class on campus. “My senator is on the Rules Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, and he’s the ranking minority party member on the Commerce and Labor Committee. So, because of all the extra committee assignments, I stayed late when I could,” she says. As a Saint Martin’s Benedictine Scholar and member of the Norcia Leadership Community, Saucedo had other obligations during the week at the University. Then, there’s her weekend job as a barista.
Despite the craziness, Saucedo laughs. She wouldn’t have traded the internship for anything, notwithstanding the fact she dislikes politics, she says.“I have no clue how this internship is going to fit into my career plan but I love helping people,” she says. “I love working with children and migrants. I’m thinking about a master’s degree in public administration – something that I can use directly helping people. But the internship is still an amazing opportunity and I’m glad I did it. I’ll understand how things work a lot more because I’ve learned it hands-on.”
Villalpando-Ramos found the pace exhilarating — once she adjusted to it. “I think it is one of those environments where you learn by being uncomfortable. At the same time, you get a lot of support. The legislative assistants are there to explain the processes and help you.”
She and Flynn-Burbage each worked for two House members. In March, when interns from schools with a quarterly system went home, Flynn-Burbage was assigned a third one. Legislators all have their distinctive office procedures and Flynn-Burbage became a master at multitasking.
No matter whose office they were in, though, the job was demanding. All six interns learned to track bills, track constituent opinion on bills and respond to constituents. They researched bills and policies, and attended meetings, hearings and functions. It is detail-oriented and sometimes tedious work.“I had 300 topics on a constituent-tracking Excel spreadsheet,” Saucedo explains. “Whenever someone emailed or phoned or came in, I tracked whether they were for or against the issues and I replied to them.”
Jeaqualyn Borgonia, a Port Orchard junior who is majoring in political science and planning a legal career, says she organized lots of meetings. When her legislator was unavailable, she met with various groups, herself, to hear their concerns.
So, while the work demands thoroughness, Flynn-Burbage and Borgonia say it is relevant and important because it guides their legislators’ decisions for the people they serve. It also has helped them see the direct ramifications of issues on people and hear opinions from different perspectives.
It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Saint Martin’s students that a favorite activity of all six interns was helping constituents solve problems, a skill they’ll carry with them forever.
“Casework” — troubleshooting problems for people — was a large part of Flynn-Burbage’s workload. Pursuing solutions means researching and talking with people at various state agencies. It has been gratifying to learn where to turn to help unsnarl a predicament, she says. She was able to help one woman who needed a stair-lift in order to stay in her home which the woman could neither pay for it nor find benefits to cover the costs. Flynn-Burbage started placing phone calls and finally found funding for her. “It can be the best part of your day,” she says.
Borgonia says, “It can also be the saddest part of your day, especially if you want to help someone and you exhaust all options and have to tell them, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you’.”
The internship has provided a gift in the form of developing strong professional and personal networks, which promise to be priceless as the interns begin careers or grad school.
Rosenberg experienced this gift first-hand when the connections she made during her legislative internship in Washington state helped her land a summer internship in Washington, D.C., working for Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, the Republican U.S. representative for Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.“The chief of staff for the Majority Coalition Caucus in Washington state, Jim Troyer, who also happens to work in the office right next to mine, called Congresswoman Beutler’s office chief of staff after I called their office to see if anything was available,” says Rosenberg. “I was scheduled for a phone interview the next day and received my acceptance email the following morning. I’m really excited!”
The interns also speak of a sense of camaraderie, of co-workers who seem to value them despite their youth and inexperience — people who have guided them, supported them and welcomed them as part of the team. Villalpando-Ramos, who ultimately “would love to be a Supreme Court judge,” says a landmark occasion for her was meeting and talking informally with justices of the Washington Supreme Court at a reception. “It was a bonding time and definitely one of the most memorable experiences,” she says. “All these networking opportunities come up in the after-hours. It’s like magic — everyone gives you business cards. I have a whole stack of them.”
A highlight for everyone was a mock debate on the Senate floor. The interns assumed the role of legislators, sitting at their desks and speaking for constituents of the districts they “represented” on a bill that had previously been scuttled by the real legislature. Up front stood Lt. Gov. Brad Owens, the Senate president, controlling the debate, offering advice and warning of possible ethics violations. (Maybe he took note when someone hauled in cupcakes as bribes for vote-switchers.) The simulation was the last step in a procedure that had included researching bills, holding mock committee hearings and listening to advocates, party leadership and policy wonks — all the usual legislative trappings. Students drafted amendments, huddled in whispered negotiations and tried to do the bidding of both their constituents and party leadership before the final vote.
While Rosenberg is a left-leaning Democrat from the even lefter-leaning state of Hawaii, she chose to represent the views of right-leaning constituents in an Eastern Washington district, an exercise that stretched her mind and put her in touch with other viewpoints. “I’ve always thought about running for office,” Rosenberg says. “But I’ve seen the impact a single vote has on a lot of people, and when you can see both sides, you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m changing someone’s life’ — that’s scary for me. It’s definitely a power thing.”
Says Borgonia, “Some people learn differently...here, you get to not only read about it, but also see how it is going through the process. It gives you a lot more insight than books can give you. Meeting people, getting immersed in a professional atmosphere and networking is a good thing. I think the connections you make are great.”