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High School Students Intern on Capitol Hill

Herndon High School boasts one of the largest Capitol Hill intern programs.

For most high school students, second semester of senior year means choosing the right college dorm for the fall, finding the perfect dress or tuxedo to wear to prom or planning a graduation party.

But for students of Herndon High School's three senior-level political science courses, these second semester responsibilities also include delivering high-level documents to members of the U.S. Congress, attending specialized congressional committee meetings and sometimes even writing speeches for U.S. representatives.

"I'm just in awe still in the opportunity that I've been able to get with this internship, it's amazing," said 18-year-old Charnelle Bazemore while sitting in the Canon House Office Building of speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.-8), the first woman in the history of the country to hold that position. "You don't even get to see many college kids getting this chance, so it's just been great to be here and learn more about what happens down here."

Bazemore is one of 71 Herndon High School students participating in a political science internship this semester. She and the other students of the program, which also includes interns at non-profit interest groups, embassies and municipal government offices, devote at least eight hours over two days a week on top of their studies to their respective offices. They participate in the internships in the place of attending their political science classes and provide continuous journals and insights into their experiences on the hill and in other offices.

The process is facilitated by Herndon High School teachers Doug Graney and Rebecca Small who nominate students for specific internships and represent them in delivering resumes for successful placement. While placement relies on what is available each semester, students can request a particular party, have a choice in what institution they would like to work and the political affiliation of their representative or senator, the teachers said.

WHAT STARTED as 10 Herndon High School students picking up a few internships on Capitol Hill back in 1994 has since expanded to be the largest high school Capitol Hill intern self-placement program in the nation, said Graney. Its several dozen placements even rivals many universities in Washington, D.C., he added.

The reason the program has been so successful is because of its high reputation, built on its careful student selection process and a large number of requirements for participation. All of the interns cannot be involved with most second semester extracurricular activities, like participation in sports and theater, to make sure that their undivided attention is on the internship.

In addition, the students must demonstrate to the teacher during the first semester of the course that they possess the skills, dedication and maturity that are necessary for the internship. As a result, each year a handful of students cannot continue the class, as the teachers decide not to place them in an internship.

Despite the large amount of dedication required of the students, the rewards are huge, said Small.

"You see over the course of the internship that it just gives the kids so much self confidence, a first-hand knowledge of politics and really helps to develop the kids into adults," Small said.

"They not only get to see things like the operation of our government and office management, but they're right in the middle of history, and they're a part of it," Graney said.

And sometimes it's the high school students who end up performing even better than some of the college interns, according to Paula Short, office manager for Pelosi and Bazemore's supervisor. Each semester Pelosi's office only accepts two or three high school interns, a number significantly less than their total college interns, she added.

"When they come in at first, they're shy, but by the end they can walk around the capitol and know what's going on just like experts," Short said. "And its not uncommon for them to exceed our college students ... because they're just so dedicated."

WORKING AMONG national politicians has been an eye-opening experience for Nicholas Jacobs, 17, who works in the office of Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio-13). Jacobs, aside from his normal administrative internship duties, is regularly tasked with attending and reporting on special committee meetings.

"When you get down there, it's just immediately a different perspective from being out here and watching it on CSPAN, here it seems so far away, but there, you're right up close," Jacobs said. "You can read about it all you want in the textbook, but once you see it in person, you can really start to understand it."

Past and present students have had a variety of experiences when it comes to both the traditional as well as the unorthodox practices of the legislature, Small said. For instance, some students had to work to separate the bricks that were sent in by proponents of a border fence with Mexico last year.

Being a part of the process brings with it a renewed sense of appreciation for the job of political representatives, despite their often overall negative portrayal as corrupt or aloof in the media, said Lauren Moore, 17, of the office of Sen. Lamar Alexander, (R-Tenn.).

"People sometimes don't realize that it's such a complicated system and that things can take a long time to get through sometimes," Moore said. "People will sometimes call and complain and say that they're not being represented ... but they really work hard."

Nichole Butler, 18, who works in Rep. Chris Smith's (R-NJ-4) office agreed.

"Every office is different, but I can seriously say that these people work incredibly hard, they usually need to be in five places at once and they're usually not leaving until late in the night," Butler said. "I don't think a lot of people realize that ... and this has been just a great experience to learn and appreciate that fact."