Peer Review

Value-Added Learning

For a growing number of American college and university students, the fundamental aspects of higher education are not enough. Frequently, students desire some advanced learning that takes them beyond the boundaries of pristine college campuses to the high-stakes environment of the nation’s capital, where political and ethical conflicts of monumental proportions are waged daily. (What happens in Washington usually does not stay in Washington.) In this essay, we explain the ways in which well-structured internship programs can be the bridges that equip students with the skills necessary to move beyond the campus based delivery to a different stratosphere of more complex and applied learning. In such programs, students learn to compete effectively in today’s marketplace and responsibly engage in our multiracial American democracy.

Facilitating Extraordinary Learning Experiences

Most students coming to Washington, DC, will have an extraordinary experience in a variety of areas. It is not unusual to overhear visiting student comments such as: “I saw one of my senators!” or “I didn’t expect so many homeless people in our nation’s capital.” But an extraordinary experience is not necessarily a learning experience. In well-structured DC-based academic internship programs, students not only have unusual experiences, but experiences that lead to applied learning. Well-structured programs include seasoned faculty who understand theories of student development and learning. Such programs will be complemented by the best practices of teaching and learning: critical reading, analytical thinking, engaged classroom experience, reflection, self direction, and analytical writing. These students will not only ask questions like, “Why is there human trafficking?” but they will be challenged to explore the problems associated with such practices and work in organizations that address the issue. As a result of this type of applied learning, the issue of human trafficking becomes real and the student works in a policy organization to alleviate the problem.

Cultivating Knowledge in the World Around Them

One of the fascinating things about well-structured internship programs is that they inspire student interest in the larger world. Students frequently report that they have never read a daily newspaper before coming to Washington. In participating in the internship program, however, students realize that there is a cost to ignorance—discussions in Washington almost always lead back to politics. Students quickly realize the value of being informed, and this lesson stays with them long after they finish their internships. In this sense, the learning that occurs in well-structured internship programs generates increased engagement among students, which is an important resource for social capital and American democracy.

In fact, after realizing their own need for involvement, students generally report one of two different points of view about their Washington internship experience. Either they expect and are motivated by political discussions, or they are surprised at how many people have political opinions, which makes them feel left out. Most of these students realize the need to know more and to learn about the pressing domestic and international issues as quickly as they possibly can. They also realize that they cannot escape political discussions. In order to be truly engaged, they have to express opinions; think about what people are saying, writing, and doing; and analyze the issues. They quickly realize that they cannot simply rely on their parents’ political views, and that they are increasingly motivated to inquire about the “big questions” that were irrelevant to them in the safe environment of their college campuses: “Why do we have a trade deficit, and is that okay?” or, “How can I find out what the budget is for international development?” One student asked: “What government agency is responsible for human rights?” It is in this sense that the learning inspired by well-structured Washington internship programs is like a gift that keeps on giving, because it changes students in ways that have the potential to change others around them as well.

An Endless Array of Learning Opportunities

Completing an internship experience as part of their undergraduate education, or right after graduation, gives students motivation, skills, and knowledge they can carry to the professional world. DC internships provide students with examples of what they do not know. And in almost every case, the intern is motivated to find out more about the problems or issues, and how to develop the skills in order to get the job done. In one example, an intern spent almost a week doing research on women judges around the world. At the end of the week she came upon a Web site as well as an organization that represents women judges. With this discovery, the intern became frustrated that she had spent so much time finding out from various sources what the one source could have provided. In class, when asked about the experience and what she had learned, the student replied, “Work smarter, not harder.”

Professional writing is often a challenge for students in internship programs. When asked to do a summary of a long report, the supervisor often wants the summary to be one page or two pages at the most. Most students struggle with how to concisely convey the material and not miss major points. Students asked to draft speeches or talking points have rarely had such an assignment for their courses; they must learn the finer points either by researching, reading, or talking with staff members who have completed such assignments.

The specialized knowledge that students gain during their internships is progressive, experience-based, and far deeper than they realize. Upon arriving in Washington, they probably will know very little about the actual content and mission of an organization. Frequently by the end of the semester, students gain significant, almost expert, knowledge and considerable understanding of an issue through their work and research in well-structured internship programs.

Incubators of Creative Policy and Research Insights

For students interested in policy, it is a truly eye-opening experience that through their DC internships, they may influence policymaking decisions. With researched and careful internship placements, students can immediately be involved in policy-making. Recently, a student from South Dakota was placed with the United Nations Association of the capital area. One of his assignments was to set up a Hill briefing day. His job was to make appointments with congressional representatives and “tell the UN story.” The student returned to South Dakota with every intention of chartering a UN chapter in his home state.

In well-structured internship programs, students are able to translate their Washington immersion learning—their internships—into strategies for their own communities or states. Their internships in Washington might end, but their involvement with larger issues and the big questions will continue. Once in the professional world, former interns have run for local office, become staff members at the local Red Cross, worked on education policy, or have been impelled to learn more by going on to graduate studies or law school.

Youth Are Our Future

But there is another aspect to Washington that is very exhilarating to students. Washington is a youthful city. Many young people who work in the nation’s capital have very responsible positions. On Capitol Hill, this is particularly true—Hill staffers are powerful individuals who research and write policy. Staff members often serve as gatekeepers to elected officials. The opportunity for students to make their mark on the Hill is evident, since most junior staffers are hired right out of college and staff turnover is constant. Senior staffers are often in their late twenties or maybe in their early thirties. There are very few staffers who have touches of gray hair.

Whether the internship is in government or other organizations, the influence of youthful exuberance and optimism is strongly felt. The research assistants, the deputy directors, the coordinators or directors of various departments are all in their twenties or early thirties. These young people do policy research on issues, and they influence decisions.

The assumption that interns don’t do “real work” is just wrong. The influence interns have as part of the workforce in the nation’s capital and in a range of occupations in government, associations, and other organizations is remarkable. Interns have done medical research, assisted the president’s chief of staff, organized events, raised significant funds, and passionately worked for policy issues such as global warming, oil drilling in Alaska, (or not drilling in Alaska), and endless other examples. One of the students at WII served as the acting desk officer for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department. These are examples of unparalleled experiences taking students into areas where the college curriculum could not take them.

Societal Benefits

Students who have completed internships in DC increase their knowledge of how our government works and how the United States influences global relations and economies. It is the kind of learning that broadens their perspective on life and their place in society. The former interns are more likely to engage in civic activities and to care about the quality of life in their communities. They are more likely to vote, to do volunteer work or community service.

More than half of the intern alumnus report that they are optimistic about the future. Over half report that they believe they can change the world, whether on a macro level of large scale change or on the micro level of incremental change. It is inspiring to know that these young professionals believe passionately in a bright future for themselves and our society. In this sense, the learning that is facilitated by well-structured internship programs is a gift that keeps on giving in the form of long-lasting societal benefits that continually renew and inspire democratic activity and engagement among our citizens.

Washington Internship Institute: An Example of Complex and
Applied Learning

The Washington Internship Institute (WII) structures the student’s course of studies in such a way that experience informs knowledge, and that knowledge contributes to experience. Internships provide specialized experiential learning, and the Institute’s seminar guides the student in combining the reflectiveness and insight of classroom sessions with the vicarious learning through hearing other students’ experiences. Students who attend WII are generally high-achieving risk takers who want to increase their knowledge and skill development. They want to know what they can do with their education. WII is the bridge between on-campus learning and growing into their professional lives.
For information see: www.ielnet.org.


Yvette Alex-Assensoh is an associate professor of political science at the Indiana University-Bloomington, and a member of the Indiana State Bar Association; Mary Ryan is the president of the Washington Internship Institute.

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