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Students Learn Politics First-Hand

Herndon High School political science students spend semester interning in Washington.

Jeanette Snider is like any other senior at Herndon High School, she attends after-school events, hangs out with friends and participates in typical graduating senior activities.

But, opposite most graduating seniors, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) is Snider's hero — politics are Snider's passion.

Although one of approximately 60 political science students interning on Capitol Hill or with political interest groups, when Snider is asked about her internship on The Hill, she becomes giddy with excitement.

"It's great to work someplace where I feel so passionate about the same things she feels passionate about," said Snider about interning in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) office, adding she read her book this summer.

"I was interested in Clinton anyways, I respect her and her opinions," she said. "Besides the fact that she is the first former First Lady to be a senator and half of my family is in New York."

As one of many interns in Clinton's office, Snider said tasks that could seem boring to other people, such as sorting mail, still pique her interest.

"I love doing mail because I am able to see the thoughts and opinions of Sen. Clinton’s constituents," said Snider in a journal entry of her experiences.

ALTHOUGH THE political science internship program has been around for a while, after working with the original program 10 years ago, U.S. History, political science and philosophy teacher Doug Graney, thought it could be better.

"I decided to do the program on my own because I didn't like the system," said Graney explaining originally teachers throughout Fairfax County joined to place students in various internships.

Because the first program did not offer students a choice in where they were placed, Graney said that was one of the first things he changed.

Now, students prepare a list of possible offices where they would like to work, and although they do not always get their first choice, Graney said he tries to place them in an office with the same political affiliation.

"Students do a better job if they are working some place they like," he said. "And those places are more willing to have us back if they do well."

Through the program — a political-science elective — students are able experience a hands-on education of American politics while getting out of the classroom.

"It's a good experience to be out of the building," said Rebecca Small, Advanced Placement government teacher. "And they get experience in a 'real-world' environment."

Small explained she and Graney have to call multiple offices to see if students could be placed for the two-month internship.

"With some of the internships we have relationships with the offices and they take the students quickly," said Small. "But because the program is growing it's really more cold-calling offices now."

Small added because a majority of students request Democratic offices, and because the Democrats are currently a minority on The Hill, it's hard to meet first choices.

"I never thought of myself as a sales person as a teacher so I have to get used to the role," said Small about having to sell the program. "But, it's great to see the kids learning."

Through the political-science elective, students leave school before the last period of the day to be in the city from 1:30 p.m. to roughly 5 p.m. Although they rarely meet as a class, Graney and Small have asked the students to complete journals of their day-to-day experiences to be graded.

"Because they are living near D.C. they should be able to take advantage of it," said Graney. "These students are the only high school kids in the county to do something like this."

IN ADDITION TO BEING the only high-school students with this opportunity, this year, because Graney had a connection, two students were placed at the United States Department of Homeland Security (USDHS).

One of those students was Laura Saville.

"I am actually not doing as much office stuff as some of the other students," said Saville.

Because she is not only the first high-school intern, but one of the first interns ever to be at USDHS, Saville said she has been able to do a lot more work than she expected.

"I think it's worked to my advantage," she said. "Some of the stuff they were telling me, I was kind of surprised they were telling me, but they are very willing to share everything with me."

Christian Bolus was placed in a political interest group and said although he didn't get his first choice — the Lebanese Embassy — he is enjoying his internship with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"I am a strong supporter of the cause and have learned so much about the issues since I have been there," he said. "Everyone who works there is knowledgeable about so many things."

Bolus said through his internship he has done some clerical work, but more recently he has been asked to monitor newspapers and write letters to the editor for any stories that misrepresent or misconstrue the legalization of marijuana.

In addition he said he has learned about legislation behind legalizing medicinal marijuana and hemp products and the decriminalization of marijuana — to eventually make it legal.

As an intern for Sen. John Kerry (D-Ma), Sally Levine said her experience is very different.

"There are a lot of other interns," she said. "So there's not a lot of work to do."

Levine said she chose Kerry because she was from Massachusetts and partially because she had followed him during the 2004 elections in a prior political-science class.

"I guess the office was pretty crazy before when he was doing everything, but now it's died down," she said. "They said it was like losing a family member when he lost."

Now there is little to no talk of the presidential election loss, although Levine said she has filtered opinionated mail reminding Kerry of the loss and telling him to "stop acting like he is president."

Levine added although she has yet to meet Kerry in person, she has seen him from across the way in the office.

"He looks better in person than he did on TV," she said. "He's tall."

Although his internship for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) has been somewhat boring because he is primarily answering mail, Jimmy Gilbert said as a voter he has learned more about some of the state's more pressing issues.

"I agree with him on most of the issues ... I was voting this year so I followed him," said Gilbert. "I feel like I have a better handle [on how things are run] because my desk is next to the chief of staff."

Evan Power, said he chose to intern with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) for two reasons, one because he is a well-known political figure and two because he plans to attend Arizona State University.

"I wanted to intern there for mostly selfish reasons," he said. "I want to try and transfer to the state office and intern there during college."

Power said he has lucked out with his internship, because although there are numerous interns many of them are college students who are willing to show him the ropes of the Capitol.

Although each student, including Gilbert who was greeted by Wolf upon walking in the office on his first day, has had different experiences, each student agrees the hardest thing so far has been navigating the Capitol.

"The Capitol police have become my new best friends," joked Snider.

But, they also admit, getting lost has it's benefits.

"You get a little star struck," said Levine about getting lost and running into congressmen in the halls and on elevators.

FOR SNIDER, according to her journal entries, "by far the highlight of [her] life thus far" was when she accidentally ran into her hero.

"I did not say hello, yet Sen. Obama did receive several smiles and a look that said 'Oh My Goodness Am I DREAMING?'" said Snider in her entry about the encounter.

As of right now the majority of the students' days are spent running letters, but eventually — once they have mastered the halls of the Capitol — they will give tours to school groups and constituents.

And although Levine, Gilbert, Power, Bolus and Saville said they don't plan to pursue a career in politics, the five said they know the experiences they gain through their internships will be invaluable.

In contrast, Snider — who said politics has been her passion since the 2000 election — can't wait to see where her experiences take her.

"Look for her in the 2030 presidential election," said Graney.

"It's been great so far," said Snider. "Just being in the environment is the best thing for me."