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Interns: A New Perspective on Politics

Herndon High School seniors receive credit for semester-long internships and gain valuable experience.

When a Federal Bureau of Investigation officer slammed Samad Jawaid up against a wall in the nation's capitol, he was more worried about the officer's dog than anything else.

"They are not dogs," said the Herndon High School senior, "They are giant beasts on steroids."

While pushed up against the wall — his hands pinned behind his back — the FBI officer searched Jawaid's pockets. After finding the identification badge that allowed him into the congressional hearing, Jawaid was able to return to the meeting where he would later meet the president of Colombia and the Ambassador of Pakistan.

"It was pretty cool," he said about the detainment.

As an intern for U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (D-Ind.) Jawaid is just one of 67 Herndon High seniors interning on Capitol Hill or with a separate government organization.

The political science internship elective is offered to high school seniors who have completed a prior government class.

AROUND FOR MORE than a decade, since taking over the internship program in 1994, Doug Graney, Herndon High U.S. history, political science and philosophy teacher, has helped cater the course to appeal to his students.

Originally, teachers throughout Fairfax County worked together to place students in the available internships. Because that program did not offer students a choice in where they were placed, Graney altered Herndon's program.

Now when students begin the semester they are asked to write down congressional offices they would like to work in. For the less politically-picky students, they can write down which party affiliation they would prefer to work with. Students not interested in working in a congressional office also have the option of interning with an embassy or other political organization.

"I want them to really see how government works from the inside," he said about the program. "I want them to have fun, and I want them to look back at this as a great memory from high school."

To offer the program to more students, Rebecca Small, Advanced Placement government teacher, partnered with Graney because the elective is so rewarding for students.

Last year Small had to make a number of "cold" calls, or calls to offices where Herndon High interns had not previously been placed. Many of last year's students wanted to be in Democratic offices, she said. Because Democrats are the minority party on The Hill, by the end of the placements Small felt like her resources had been exhausted. This year was the opposite; more students wanetd to intern in Republican offices, she said.

AFTER VISITING STUDENTS on The Hill March 15, and consequently being invited to attend a reception held by Native American tribes for congressmen like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Small and Graney received feedback from the congressional staff.

"Several of the supervisors said the work our students are doing surpasses the work of the college interns," said Small. "It was really neat to see how students had become part of the office."

Listing a couple of her students, Small explained each internship is offering the students a chance to do a little of everything.

Many of the students, like senior Blair Thomlinson who is in Sen. Hilary Clinton's (D-NY) office, have been answering phones and relaying issue positions of their senator or representative to constituents, Small said. The students are also manning the front office, giving Capitol tours to out of town visitors, answering constituent mail and answering the phones.

"People will start yelling at you for no reason and you can't really say anything back," said Jawaid about answering some calls. "You have to be nice, so you just say thank you and hang up when they are done."

Through her internship with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Terri Nguyen was given the opportunity to write a speech about the 150 year anniversary of a town in Wisconsin that Kind read on the floor.

"I went into it expecting to have to fold mail and print stuff out," she said. "I was really nervous because I didn't want to screw up. I didn't think they would give me that much responsibility."

WORKING IN Rep. Jose Serrano's (D-NY) office, Frances Zubiate had the opportunity to sit near Condoleezza Rice in a hearing and even shake her hand afterwards.

"I was asked to revise a bill the first day I got there," she said. "I was just an intern, so I was thinking 'am I really able to do that?'"

Joking he was one of the last students to get placed, David Dorsett said his time with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (D-Md.) has been educational — even if he is responding to letters.

"I think the most interesting has been doing the research and writing letters to constituents," he said.

Not overly interested in politics before his internship, after working with Bartlett, Dorsett realizes politics could be a possibility, he said.

"It has been a really great experience," he said. "It has opened my mind now because Congressman Bartlett was a scientist, then he became a teacher and he is now a congressman. So even if I don't want to do it now, that could change."

Ashley Sipe found one of the harder parts about her internship with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has actually been navigating her way through the underground tunnels of the Capitol building.

"It's what you make it so you have to go in with an open mind," she said. "I knew he was a Senator from Tennessee, so I figured he was pretty conservative. I am really there to help the constituents and the Senator and other people in the office."

CHOOSING NOT TO work on The Hill, Julia Schoepe and Romano Sarmiento were placed in internships that catered to their political and personal beliefs.

Graney suggested Schoepe intern with the political group the National Abortion Rights Action League at the start of the semester because of her political opinions, she said.

"I went in with an open mind that whatever task I was given I would do — even data entry," said Schoepe, who added while data entry could get tedious, it is very important and someone has to get it done.

"I didn't know that NARAL even existed before my experience," she said. "It's opened my mind about other people's views and what they think. I'm much more educated about the topic and I feel more comfortable about speaking to people about it."

Sarmiento opted to intern at the Embassy of the Philippines, which also happens to be his native country.

"After my second time there I started learning about my history, which was really interesting, " he said.

Since working there Sarmiento has helped plan events, which he said happen almost every weekend. He is also working on creating a database for the entire building, and helping plan an event for the 20th anniversary of the country's revolution.

"This group has been notable," said Graney about the students placed. "Franny [Zubiate] on her first day was putting in legislation."

For the interns who have not been as fortunate to write speeches or putting in legislation, meeting their congressmen or riding in the elevator with well-known politicians has been reward enough.

"It's so cool because history is being made right there while you are working," said Dorsett.

Not upset about being "detained" — but also hoping not to run into the FBI or their dogs for the remaining month of his internship — Jawaid agreed the internship has been an eye-opening experience.

"I like my congressman — he's a funny guy," he said. "I thought all congressmen were uptight, but actually they are not. My congressman cracks jokes in the office all the time, he is really fun to work with."