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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Inside the Beltway
At UCDC, Berkeley undergrads get a taste of life and work in the nation's capital

By Cathy Cockrell, NewsCenter | 16 May 2007

– For Jessica Dell, an ardent follower of electoral politics and an aspiring broadcast journalist, a little piece of heaven would be a fast-paced tour of duty in a major political-news operation. Her spring semester proved to be celestial.

Selected to take part in the UC Berkeley Washington Program (UCDC), the Berkeley junior landed a four-month internship with CNN's political unit — in the shadow of the nation's capitol, no less. Working in the political-news unit, she spent her days doing background research, locating archived footage, transcribing interviews, and getting a close-up look at '08 presidential hopefuls in action in the D.C. area.

Jessica Dell and Sparsha SahaOn leaving UCDC: 'I'm excited to go back and see my family and friends. But my heart will hurt a little.'

- Jessica Dell (with fellow CNN intern Sparsha Saha
(Joanne Connelly photos)

"You thrive off the adrenaline," Dell says of the TV-news production environment. Now, she adds, "I'm really up on the campaigns and the candidates and the political stories of the day."

A 'totally different' setting

Berkeley's UCDC program offers students a chance to work inside the Washington Beltway — mostly in volunteer internships, though in edifying and sometimes exciting government, non-profit, and corporate organizations — and attend for-credit classes (a required research seminar plus one elective) taught by University of California faculty, in the evenings.

"For most of these students, this is most difficult thing ever done in their undergrad career," says political science professor Michael Goldstein, who heads the program and teaches its research seminar. Headquartered in the University of California's state-of-the-art facility 11 blocks from the White House, near Dupont Circle, "the setting is totally different" from the Berkeley campus, he notes, and "requires different skills to achieve." Such as navigating a bureaucracy in order to move into a coveted assignment. Or writing a major research paper — the centerpiece of students' academic experience in D.C. — while holding down a day job. Back at Berkeley, he notes, it's possible to pull an end-of-semester all-nighter (or two) and finish out a semester. "You can't do that here," he says. "You have to be at work in the morning."

Internships in the 'rough and tumble'

For third-year student Christina Zaldaña, that meant taking the Metro from the UC center (where students live together in suites, as do students from other campuses) to the Latin American Youth Center, a community organization in D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Christina Zaldaña
On her internship at D.C.'s Latin American Youth Center: 'I knew I wanted to do something about youth, about the resources that are available to them.'
- Christina Zaldaña

A sociology and mass communications double-major whose parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador, Zaldaña thrived on her interaction with young Salvadorans and Latino youth from many other countries. Through her internship, she helped lead two after-school programs and researched local youths' perspectives on the gentrification that is rapidly transforming the area.

"If your neighborhood is changing around you, how does that affect your sense of efficacy and self worth?" Zaldaña asks. Seldom, she notes, do researchers solicit young people's views on this issue.

Other UCDC students seek placements on Capitol Hill and in policy think tanks and federal agencies in the D.C. area. This semester political-science major Alan Donner interned with the White House's Domestic Policy Council; Akash Suri, poli sci and Southeast Asia studies double major, in the State Department; economics major Erica Yung at the Department of Treasury; Bianca Yip with the Smithsonian Institution.

Cal senior Sparsha Saha, like Dell, was "thrown into the tumble" of CNN — interning with the network's weekday newscast, "The Situation Room" — and declares it "the best thing I've done so far in my life." A political science and French double major, Saha mined this experience to create, in her academic research, a model for understanding the media's influence on U.S. government foreign-policy decisions. "With respect to humanitarian issues, I found that money" — both U.S. foreign aid and non-governmental humanitarian donations — "really does follow coverage," she says.

Having a fellow Cal student, in Dell, with whom to share her Metro ride and her "CNN obsession" was not shabby either. The two became "instant friends," sometimes even speaking in one voice of their media experience.

"Both of us," says Saha, "think that the CNN internship is one of the most hectic, demanding, and fast-paced internships out there — and we just love it!"

Easing the transition to the work world

A political science and French double-major, Saha hopes to go to law school and possibly, at a future date, do work related to the media. Dell, for her part, plans to make a beeline, after Berkeley, for an entry-level job in broadcast television, though she's reset her sights on a production role, rather than one in front of the cameras.

There's an excellent chance the "CNN" on her resume will help pave the way — as D.C. internships have for other program participants before her.

Ben Kramer
Advice to current UCDC students: Even if you don't agree with the politics of your internship, remember that 'you can leave a job, but not the people.'
- UCDC alumnus Ben Kramer

Ben Kramer '04 majored at Berkeley in international relations and Arabic.

While at the UC Washington Center, he interned at a non-profit think tank. After graduation, Kramer circulated his resume to a select group of legislators on the Hill, landing a staff position in the office of Congressman Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

After a study-abroad stint in Geneva piqued her interest in human-rights work, Kelly Nilsson extended her UC Berkeley career by a semester, hoping an internship with a major D.C.-based human-rights organization would lead to a paying job in the field.

Kelly Nilsson
'While interning at Amnesty International, 'I was handed case files from people who were seeking asylum in the U.S.... Many times, our research was the only support the person had in their immigration trial.''
- UCDC alumna Kelly Nilsson

The gamble paid off: Nilsson found a rewarding UCDC internship at Amnesty International — reviewing foreign nationals' appeals for amnesty status. Many "were currently being held in detention; most had no money and very limited English knowledge. I would review their claims and perform detailed research into the conditions in their home countries," she recalls. After graduation, she landed a paid staff position at Amnesty, supporting members and activists in the organization's Mid-Atlantic region, based in D.C.

Thanks to UC Berkeley's positive reputation and UCDC's long-term relationships with Washington-area organizations (it has now been in the capital for 11 years, its director for nearly 30), the program has leads on a wealth of outstanding internships for students to consider, Goldstein says. Students compete for admission to the program. As the political scene heats up, so does interest in being close to the action in D.C.

With the 2008 presidential campaign already in sway, he expects to have "lots of applicants for the coming year."

For more information, see the UC Berkeley Washington Program website.