Humanity in Action

Program Brings European Students to Capitol Hill

Posted February 6, 2004 at 2:35pm

Their goal is to help end human rights abuses while fostering a stronger relationship between their native Europe and the United States.

But for now, they will sort through constituent mail.

Eight foreign students are among the many Washington interns who will spend the next four months working in Congressional offices.

As fellows in the Lantos/Humanity in Action Capitol Hill Fellowship program, the students will be taking on much of the same tasks as normal interns while attending seminars each week on political policymaking, minority rights and other issues.

The goal of the program is to increase foreign student knowledge about American government while making them aware of issues such as minority rights and social policy. It is hoped the fellows will gain a diverse perspective that will foster solutions to many of the world’s most devastating problems.

“We can act as an outside observer,” said Alex Wenta, a fellow from Germany who is interning in Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s (R-Fla.) office. “It’s a lot … about just discussing certain issues.”

Getting Started

The fellowship program began in September 2001 after Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) went to Denmark to visit his son-in-law Richard Swett, the American ambassador at the time. Lantos and his wife, Annette, were impressed with the people of Denmark and wanted to find a way to bring Danish students to study in the United States.

“I felt that they would be a good influence for our young people to mingle with,” Annette Lantos said. “I also felt it would be very good for them to learn about America.”

The Lantoses were also impressed with the history of Denmark in World War II, she said. During the war, the Danes

managed to save most of the nation’s Jews from Nazi concentration camps and send them to neutral Sweden.

As survivors of the Holocaust, Lantos said she and her husband were touched by that history and wanted to give back to the Danish people.

“We wanted to do something to emphasize the wonderful legacy that these young people have received from their grandparents,” she said.

So, shortly after their return from Denmark, the Lantoses began a discussion with Danish Ambassador Ulrik Federspiel and the plan to bring students over was soon in place. It has been successful ever since.

The fellows “have been really outstanding,” Lantos said. “They are very much interested in learning.”

Program Preparations

Before coming to Washington, all of the interns are required to participate in the Humanity in Action program, in which they spend a summer learning about issues such as the Holocaust and human rights while studying abroad.

It was here that the fellows met and started discussing human rights issues.

“It was like an eye-opener to get an open mind,” Wenta said. “It’s not just about learning facts.”

Many of the fellows said the program is so powerful because it enables them to see human rights issues from a trans-Atlantic perspective. With the background they receive while fellows in the summer Humanity in Action program, they come to Washington to study the ways American government tries to solve such issues.

“It helps to actually meet up with Americans,” said Najat El Ouargui, a fellow from Denmark who is interning in the office of Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.). “It’s much more different than you read in books.”

The Distinctions

Interns in the program have responsibilities similar to that of any other working in a Congressional office, such as helping with research, taking telephone messages and sorting mail, said Lynne Weil, communications director for Rep. Lantos. They do differ from their American counterparts, however.

“I hope we can give a different perspective,” said Silje Sande, a fellow from Denmark who is interning in the office of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). “We are not influenced by the American system in the same way as American interns would be.”

The interns said they see differences between the U.S. government and the governments of many European nations. Many said they were surprised how quickly some of their ideas in Congressional offices got attention.

“We are encouraged to take our own initiative,” Sande said.

The interns also noted they did not realize that the American political system is managed largely through Congressional districts rather than as one centralized nation.

“Here, you have the notion of ‘my Congressman,’” said Soeren Riber, a fellow from Denmark who is interning in House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office. “In Europe, you vote more for the parties.”

Think tanks and special-interest groups are also a foreign concept to many of the fellows.

“It’s interesting just to see how sort of the balance of power works in America,” said Simone Kukenheim, a fellow who is interning in Lantos’ office.

But Riber is quick to point out that not everything is different. He said many of the policies put forth by the Democrats in Congress are similar to what Social Democrats in many European countries are discussing.

“You hear the American left stops where the European right ends,” he said. “That’s not true actually.”

Then there are political differences between the various European countries the interns come from. When the interns first met last summer, they noticed distinctions between the fellows from differing European countries. That has changed.

Now that she is in the United States, Sande said she finds herself referring to Europe as a single entity.

“It’s an interesting shift of the mind,” she said.

Besides interning in the Congressional offices, the fellows will have the opportunity to participate in seminars every Monday throughout the semester.

On the agenda is a trip to the Supreme Court, a taping of CNN’s “Crossfire” and lectures by political strategists such as Richard Perle. They will also attend an American Enterprise Institute program that will discuss the relationship between the United States and the European Union.

“It’s the whole experience with firsthand information,” El Ouargui said.

Plus, the fellows have to adjust to life in the United States.

“It’s been a very fun experience to get to know … the [American] life,” Sande said.

And their overall goal will continue.

“They are involved in trying to make the world a better place for all of us,” Lantos said.