Interns Get Intense Introduction to D.C.

Posted June 13, 2008 at 4:21pm

Louisiana native Sarah Frostenson is about to take on the oil industry.

She’s headed to Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) office to argue that Louisiana should move away from drilling for oil offshore and toward alternative energy.

It’s a tough pitch for anybody to make, let alone an incoming college sophomore.

“I understand, it’s the hand that feeds us, and you can’t bite it off all the time,” Frostenson said. “But at the same time, we are going to run out of oil.”

Frostenson, who will spend her summer at the World Wildlife Fund, is just one in a multitude of college students who have flocked to Washington, D.C., for internships. But she is more thoroughly prepared for the experience than many.

Along with 27 other undergraduates from Dartmouth University, she spent six days last week immersed in “Civic Skills Training” — basically a boot camp on writing policy briefs, networking, public speaking and surviving in an office.

“How do you figure out what time you are supposed to show up? How do you figure out what you are supposed to wear?” said Andrew Samwick, who oversees the program as director of the university’s Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences. “We try to save them the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes.”

There isn’t any shortage of internship programs in D.C., and most offer some sort of educational element.

The Washington Internship Program has courses to help interns improve their writing skills, for example. The American University Washington Summer Internship Program offers seminars where students learn about various aspects of the political scene.

But Dartmouth officials believe their training is different because its intense, six-day structure focuses not on the bigger political picture, but on all the smaller things that can affect an internship.

Take networking, for example. Samwick said he’s found that many students initially shy away from networking, labeling it as a sleazy way to get ahead.

“The way I try to describe networking to people, it is listening to what someone else is trying to accomplish without having expectations,” Samwick said. “You can tell students that in theory, but you really have to get into the weeds with them.”

Then there’s communication. College students often live in their own bubble, where they study and do their schoolwork on their own, without really having to talk to anybody about their projects.

“It is actually possible to be a very good student at Dartmouth but not really be able to deliver a presentation that is prepared enough that it is able to be concise,” he said. “We’re getting the students in the habit.”

Not everybody in the program is completely new to the D.C. scene. Nathan Swire, 19, has already interned in the district office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). While Swire said he learned a lot from the gig, he recalled being a bit unprepared when he first began.

“It was the first real job I’d had, and I was still getting used to the office environment,” he said. “Sort of having to work under someone, which you don’t really get in school.”

This summer, Swire will intern for the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group. The training in the six-day program helped Swire focus on what he hopes to get out of the internship, he said.

Fellow student Kristen Liu agreed.

“I know there’s a lot of rough patches in the first few weeks of your internship, and I know I’m going to have that, too,” she said. “I just think it’s going to be less burdensome.”

One of the biggest challenges for the students during the week involved drafting a policy brief and then delivering it to Capitol Hill. Students dropped by Congressional offices unannounced and asked to speak with either the Member or a legislative aide about their topic.

That’s how Frostenson wound up in Landrieu’s office, ready to persuade the Louisiana Democrat and her staff to ditch oil in favor of alternative fuels.

And as luck would have it, Frostenson got to meet with Landrieu.

While waiting in the lobby to meet with a legislative aide, Landrieu happened to be on her way out of the office and stopped for a few minutes to listen to Frostenson’s ideas and look over her policy memo.

The Senator then had Frostenson meet with a legislative aide, who, in true Washington form, explained that there are a lot of shades of gray to government policy.

While Landrieu is concerned about protecting the state’s environment — especially its wetlands — the profits generated from offshore drilling provide much-needed income to the state, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

“I learned a lot that I did not know beforehand,” Frostenson said after the visit, adding that Landrieu’s presence helped draw attention to the policy brief.

“I think her walking through really facilitated things,” she said.

As for Swire, he hoped to reconnect with Van Hollen and lobby against the use of ethanol as a biofuel. Ethanol is not an effective resource, Swire argued, but is getting attention because of the growing ethanol lobby.

“I don’t think our policy should be decided on who has the most powerful lobby,” Swire said. “Perhaps that’s naive of me.”

Just another lesson to learn.