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Washington Internship Program participants at the US Department of State

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  • 2018-02-28
  • Val Dimino

Brockport Takes On DC

The Washington Internship Program fosters leading professionals in many facets of the nation’s capital.

When Michael Weaver, professor emeritus of political science, moved to Washington, DC, in 1968 to coordinate a semester-long academic program, he thought he would be there for a year.

The program developed into the next 27 years of his career and has continued for decades since.

The State University of New York (SUNY) Washington Internship Program is based in the hub of DC activity and draws participation from colleges and universities throughout SUNY and beyond, including overseas. Managed by SUNY Brockport, it was the first program of its kind in the nation.

Students participate in coveted internships, take a weekly seminar class, engage with guest speakers, and visit landmarks. Their housing is less than a half-mile walk from the Supreme Court, the US Capitol, the Library of Congress, and their classroom space in the Hall of States building, the program’s headquarters.

The idea was formed in 1967, at a meeting of regional colleges held at Brockport. Representatives from SUNYs Cortland, Geneseo, and Oswego were in attendance and would come to take part in the program that developed. But it was Weaver who took the lead.

Although he had no firsthand experience in DC, “I immediately realized that would be something I would want to do,” Weaver said. “It was a highly experimental idea. No individual universities outside of those based in DC were doing anything in this field. It was very fertile, rich territory to come in from the outside and try to develop something.”

The first class of 12 students arrived in spring 1969. Though it was not initially conceived as a continuing program, Weaver said, “I had an inkling that it was an institution in the making.”

He offered the program again the following spring, then committed to a three-year project in which it would run every semester. After that, he said, “It just kept going!”

Weaver ran the program until his retirement in 1995. John Fitzpatrick, assistant professor emeritus, then took over and also had a lengthy and successful tenure, through 2014.

Assistant Director Robert Walter, now at the helm, says the program continues to grow.

“In my first year, I got out and visited every school involved, and I emphasized areas beyond the more obvious fits like political science, law, and criminal justice,” Walter said. “It’s allowed us to expand to additional schools who might not have robust backgrounds in those areas.”

SUNY Cobleskill, for instance, with its strong agricultural focus, is among eight schools that have joined the program over the last three years. Likewise, enrollment has jumped from 49 students in 2014-15 to 73 this academic year.

More than 3,000 students have participated throughout the program’s 50-year history, nearly 700 of whom have been Brockport students.

Internships at the Core

Program staff work closely with each student from the outset to help find potential internship sites well suited to their unique interests and goals. Students have interned across the full gamut of government: with the White House, Supreme Court, Senate, House of Representatives, Cabinet departments, Executive Branch agencies, foreign embassies, policy think tanks, party organizations, and political campaigns.

Others have interned with arts organizations: the Washington Ballet, the National Endowment for the Arts, the DC Jazz Festival; in media and design: The Washington Post, the National Geographic Channel, PBS, HuffPost; in sports administration: the Washington Nationals, Wizards, Capitals, Redskins, and Mystics, the NFL Players Association, the US Soccer Foundation; and a plethora of other areas.

About one-third of participants receive a job offer either directly from their internship site or through networking opportunities gained during the program.

Tambria Schroeder ’17 now works full time in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Office of Global Programs — the same office in which she interned. She calls the foundation of her career “an absolutely incredible experience.”

“The office is unique in that it covers all regions in the world and a number of thematic issues, so there is never a shortage of new things to learn or work on,” she said.

Already in her young career, she has helped manage programs in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa; is regularly involved in correspondence with Congress; and has traveled to England, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

Weaver says the internship-focused structure of the program can be credited to its early participants. It began as strictly a coursework program, utilizing the DC setting and its resources and luminaries as academic fodder. A key part of the course was to develop an idea in discussion with bureaucrats, whom the students would seek out themselves.

“Increasingly, the students, through their own initiative, began looking for what we came to call volunteerships,” said Weaver. “They would go out into the community and look for places to study their particular project and also be of help to that institution. They went to congressional offices, trade associations, bureaucratic offices, and got firsthand experience, in addition to getting their papers completed. The internship program developed from what those students did in the early years.”

Senior Emily Marge’s internship, currently underway, was a natural progression from work she had done on campus. As a Brockport Student Government senator and as an intern with Associate Professor of Political Science Susan Orr, Marge was a driving force behind multiple veterans’ affairs initiatives, such as the installation of the commemorative plaque outside the Seymour College Union, the annual 5K race, and other Veterans Day events. Those experiences have made her current work with the US Department of Veterans Affairs — which she had secured a semester in advance — a great fit.

“The Washington program is one of my favorite opportunities that Brockport has to offer,” said Marge. “At Brockport, we are taught how to be global citizens within our community and how to help others. Through my internship, I can see how to help and improve veterans’ lives and how to advocate for them.”

A Powerful Network

In November, Weaver and alumni came together in the Hall of States to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program’s inception. Among those in attendance was Al Cobb ’70, a member of the program’s second cohort, who made his career in DC — working for three Congressmen, two trade associations, and the Department of Energy — and has remained closely involved with the program ever since, supervising interns, mentoring students, and leading seminar discussions.

“The Washington semester meant more to me than all the other semesters added up,” said Cobb. “Also, there’s a certain pride in knowing that Brockport is the lead institution in the program.”

Many alumni have also stayed connected to the program by donating scholarship funds. The six Brockport students participating this semester all received financial assistance thanks to a recent donation by Thomas O’Donnell ’73.

Weaver says the program’s potential became evident so early on because of the caliber of the students.

“It became very clear to me that the students at Brockport were enormously talented and smart, and I thought this would present an opportunity for them to really develop their skills,” he said. “These students came to learn that they could compete very effectively, and that is very gratifying to a teacher.”

He has seen this proven time and again by the number of program alumni who have moved into prominent careers. Congressman John Faso ’74, for instance, is an alumnus of the program, having interned with the House of Representatives. Others have gone on to work in senior positions with the American Hospital Association and the Obama administration.

Schroeder says many of her friends from the program secured jobs in DC within a year of graduation, just as she did — at the Supreme Court, C-SPAN, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, at law firms, and in cybersecurity. Well represented throughout DC, the program keeps the students connected as a network.

“I would not have the job and life that I currently do had it not been for my semester in the Washington Internship Program,” said Schroeder. “I was exposed to so much through both my internship and the program itself, and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Last Updated 7/29/21

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