While some high school students spend winter break sleeping in and watching television, eight young women from a private school in Tennessee are spending their vacation answering mail and conducting tours of the Capitol.
Harpeth Hall, a renowned all-girls college-preparatory school in Nashville, has been sending students to intern in lawmakers’ offices since 1973.
For a few weeks between the fall and spring semesters, juniors and seniors at the school are required to spend time working or studying off campus. Students have done community service projects in New York and studied in China, Italy, France and Spain.
Eight chose to spend this year’s “winterim” interning in the offices of Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
Legare Vest, a program adviser and Harpeth Hall science teacher, said the mandatory program reflects the school’s attitude about learning.
“We’re not just about sitting in the classroom,” she said. “We’re also about helping each girl find her own passion, and winterim is certainly an avenue that makes that happen for each girl.”
Some based their decision to come to Washington, D.C., on positive feedback from previous interns.
Senior Mary Liza Hartong, who is interning in Blackburn’s office, followed the path of her two sisters who interned in D.C. while in high school.
“I thought it would be nice to carry on the ‘family tradition,’” she said in an email.
For others, the Congressional internships best fulfilled their academic and extracurricular interests.
“I chose this internship because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about how government in the United States works,” senior Emma Dedman, also an intern in Blackburn’s office, said in an email. “I also thought it would be exciting to work in Washington because 2012 is an election year.”
Laura Lee Singer, a junior interning in Corker’s office, said she was motivated to come to D.C. in part because of her experience with mock trial at Harpeth Hall.
“I really enjoyed the judicial aspect,” she said of the extracurricular activity that has students play the roles of attorney and witnesses in semi-scripted court cases. “But I really wanted to see the more legislative side ... so I thought D.C. would be the perfect place to figure that out.”
Despite the lull that often accompanies Congressional recesses, the students are still getting hands-on experience.
“I’ve learned all of the nitty-gritty details of mail sorting, phone etiquette and giving Capitol tours,” Hartong said. “Even in the quiet times here, there is still so much important work to be done.”
In addition to seeing the business side of D.C., the Harpeth Hall students had a chance to explore the fun side of the city. They toured the National Mall, saw “Billy Elliot” at the Kennedy Center and dined at some of the city’s best restaurants.
Inspired by the experience, some of the interns are considering returning to the District after college.
Singer said she likes the fast-paced nature of working in Congress and could imagine herself returning one day.
“Everyone is always looking forward and looking ahead,” she said. “I really like that part.”
Others are still weighing their post-high school plans and letting their experiences inform those decisions.
Junior Leslie Rolfe, who is interning in Corker’s office, said she’s still thinking about what she wants to study in college. She said spending her winterim here has let her get a taste of life in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been trying to figure out if I want to go in the political direction or if I want to go in the business direction,” Rolfe said. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”
For one Harpeth Hall alumna, the winterim internship was particularly formative. Melissa Neal, now Cooper’s scheduler in his district office, started her career in politics with a 2005 winterim internship in Cooper’s D.C. office.
“I did the internship, and I loved working for Jim,” Neal said.
When she graduated from college in 2010, she reached out to Cooper’s staff and landed a job with his campaign and then his district office.
Of the few weeks she spent in D.C. as a high school student, Neal most remembers “intern time,” when the Congressman sat down with the interns on a daily basis to talk about their experiences and further their education.
“On my first day there, he assigned me a book to read,” Neal said, remembering that she had to read, write about and present on James Mann’s “Rise of the Vulcans,” which focused on President George W. Bush’s top foreign policy advisers.
“Jim is very focused on working with his interns. He loves it,” Neal said.
Correction: Jan. 19, 2012
The photo accompanying the article incorrectly identified four girls as interns in Sen. Bob Corker's office. Two of the four pictured, Ellie Davis and Anne Gray Thornburg, were interns in Sen. Lamar Alexander's office.