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Undergrads prosper on the Potomac
UCDC participants see the workings of the capital, warts and all, and return to their home campuses inspired and energized

| 24 September 2003

While some take their notions of Washington, D.C., from the fast talk of The West Wing or HBO’s new series on political insiders, K Street, Berkeley undergrads have a way to experience the nation’s capital first-hand and unscripted. Each fall and spring, more than 200 students from UC campuses — some 25 of them from Berkeley — transplant themselves to the UC Washington Center, in D.C.’s northwest quadrant, for a semester of research, study, and work experience.

For participants in the seven-year-old UC Washington Program, the semester is organized around a major research project and a core intern experience. Students live in suites at the center, where they also take classes — typically an evening research seminar and an elective. All courses are taught by faculty from participating UC campuses.

By day, students fan out through the city — with those interested in politics, government, and law gravitating to internships on Capitol Hill, at the White House, and in government agencies. Others land volunteer positions in organizations like Amnesty International, the CBS Evening News, the Brookings Institution, the American Public Health Association, and the World Bank.

Different folks, different strokes
Cal junior Winston Le, a political science major considering law school or a career in the Foreign Service, is spending fall semester as a press intern for Delaware Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat on both the Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. Le’s job is to track issues and prepare packets of press clips that “go straight to the Senator,” he reports with enthusiasm. Close encounters with government VIPs are a bit of thrill, he admits. The internship also affords him ready access to the Congressional Research Service, with its knowledgeable staff and voluminous materials pertaining to Le’s research topic — U.S. foreign policy in relation to failed states like Afghanistan and Rwanda.

The new director of the UC Berkeley Washington Program, Michael Goldstein — who for the last 17 years ran a similar program for the Claremont colleges — is quick to point out that not every student would thrive on the Hill like Le is doing. Finding the right internship for each student is much like picking a college, he says: “Your friend might have interned at the State Department, but you might find it very stuffy.” Some students will gladly accept a White House internship where they’re underutilized, “so long as they get to see the President,” he notes — while others prosper in highly substantive internships in advocacy organizations. “You want to help students find the right match, so that all of them can thrive.”

During her semester in D.C. last spring, Cal senior Kristen Van Dam interned at the Washington office of the Sierra Club. Among other pluses, the placement gave her entrée to experts on global warming, whose knowledge she tapped for her 50-page research paper on renewable energy. Van Dam says that when she first heard about UCDC, she set out to prove that “an English major and tree hugger” like herself could profit as much from the program as any poli-sci buff or pre-law student. Her theory proved out. She credits the program with helping her attain several personal milestones: overcoming her shyness and landing an internship (now morphing into a paying job) at the Berkeley-based magazine, Bay Nature.

Visible changes
Goldstein is referring to experiences like this when he says that the UC Berkeley Washington program can fundamentally change people’s lives “if structured correctly.” By the latter he means creating an intellectual context — through academic work and organized tours and briefings on the ways of Washington — to help students make sense of what they’re discovering in their internships.

Last spring, for example, Berkeley Professor of Social Welfare Mike Austin lived at the Washington Center (some profs opt to take apartments in the community) and taught a course on organizational politics. In light of the celebrity nature of the city, each session opened with student reports on sightings of Washington movers and shakers. The class would then delve into dimensions of organizational life — from career trajectories of individuals to group dynamics and organizational structure and change.

For one assignment, students interviewed staff (including directors) of the organizations at which they were interning — asking about their careers: their biggest challenges, what they would have done differently, and more. Students “came back glowing,” Austin recalls. “They’d ask for 15 minutes of the person’s time, and get an hour and a half.… It was a surprise to them that people would give them that much time and demonstrate such self-reflection.” He plans to offer a version of the organizational politics course on the Berkeley campus next spring as Social Welfare 105, using community placements through Cal Corps to replicate the internship experiences that students had in D.C.

For Austin, the UC Washington Center featured amazingly sophisticated classrooms and technical support, and the program provided “a wonderful replication of the merits of a small liberal-arts college, in terms of student/faculty interaction.” Another satisfaction, for teachers, is the program’s visible effect on students.

“When you teach,” says director Goldstein, “you hope that you’ve had a positive impact on students — but sometimes you have to wait 20 or 30 years to find out.” In programs like UCDC, he says, “You actually see the change.”

Even when students witness the worst of Washington — “in terms of how decisions are really made, and how difficult it is to pass meaningful legislation” — few come back jaded. Invariably, he says, “they return to their home campus more interested, more worldly, and more committed.”

For information, visit learning.berkeley.edu/ucdc/program.htm or call 642-9102.