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UMD interns go to WASHINGTON
Students find experience both enlightening and valuable to their futures

By DANA C. GIERDOWSKI, Standard-Times correspondent

Photos courtesy of Robbin Roy
UMass Dartmouth student Jason Silva shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts in the Congressman's Capitol Hill office. "You see these things on C-SPAN all the time but you never get to see what's inside the room," says Mr. Silva of Fall River. "You never comprehend its importance until you see it in its entirety."
UMD senior Brianny Blakeman clearly remembers that March day in 2003 when former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher announced that the United States was going to war against Iraq.
"There was a buzz in the room. Everyone was expecting it," she says of Mr. Fleisher's declaration.
She remembers that day so well because she was in the White House Press Room covering it live as part of her internship with Tribune Broadcasting.
"At first, I was just listening and then I thought, 'I can't believe I came here this day,' " says Ms. Blakeman of Centerville. Then the reality of the situation set in -- and the rush began. "We had to hurry up and get back to the newsroom because we had to get (the story) out."
Ms. Blakeman is one of a handful of UMass Dartmouth students who have earned credit towards their college degrees by interning in Washington, D.C. These students are gaining valuable work experience while exploring the politics and cultural life of the nation's capital.
The Washington Center, a nonprofit educational organization, places interns in professional positions at thousands of organizations in the D.C area, from government agencies to nonprofit groups to Fortune 500 companies.
Robbin Roy, associate director of the Career Resource Center at UMD, believes the program offers students a unique experience that allows them to live away from home or campus for a semester while getting an insider's view of their area of study or interest.
Ms. Roy has served as a liaison between her office and the Washington Center for the past three years. She assists students through the application process, which involves writing a series of essays, compiling letters of recommendations and transcripts, and gathering information that is required for security clearances.
Students with a 2.75 GPA are eligible to apply. Those with a minimum 3.0 GPA can also apply for state and federal financial aid to help cover the costs of their internships.
"They are not just making copies -- they are doing high-level work," Ms. Roy notes.
Junior Rachel Lopes can attest to that. During the spring of 2003, the Fall River resident worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and helped coordinate a conference on homeland security and critical infrastructure, which addressed how to get both large and small businesses in the United States on the same computer network in the event of a national emergency.
"The conference was the best experience of my life," says Ms. Lopes, a political science major. She had numerous responsibilities at the 300-person event, from compiling conference materials to writing profiles for speakers to registering participants.
"I met heads of state and the heads of major corporations," she says. "Having the opportunity to do something on that scale at my age was amazing."
Junior Delilah Maldonado worked in the Budget Office of the Federal Aviation Administration this semester. An economics major from New Bedford, Ms. Maldonado was part of the team that helped prepare a defense for the office's budget at the annual appropriation hearings.
"I got to go to Capitol Hill twice, once for the House hearing and once for the Senate hearing. Not everyone gets to go," she says.
Ms. Maldonado got to see the fruition of all her work as she watched her FAA colleagues defend the agency's budget in front of representatives and senators. She says of her experience, "It really opened my eyes to how a government agency works."
Jason Silva, a graduating senior, worked on Capitol Hill for U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) during an internship last year. In addition to his work for Rep. Meehan, he attended Senate committee hearings and saw first-hand the debate about going to war with Iraq.
"You see these things on C-SPAN all the time but you never get to see what's inside the room," says the Fall River native. "You never comprehend its importance until you see it in its entirety."
Mr. Silva, a dual political science and history major, says that during the hearings he saw the deputy secretary of defense, deputy secretary of state and U.S. Sens. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Joseph Biden.
Ms. Roy says that the Washington Center internship program is unique because of "all the different opportunities that the variety of majors from our university have had." When students hear the words "Washington Center," many automatically think that these positions are only for students with political aspirations, but this program isn't just for political science majors, Ms. Roy says.
Ms. Blakeman, a sociology major, wanted to explore journalism and was placed last spring with Tribune Broadcasting, which owns and operates more than two dozen television stations nationwide. She assisted a Tribune news crew in setting up live feeds from locations all around Washington, D.C. In addition to covering the White House Press Room, she also had the opportunity to interview Sen. Kennedy about his position on the Iraq war. Being surrounded by professional reporters was intimidating, but she managed to get a few questions in, she says.
Being in the country's political center during this period was a sobering experience.
"All the security measures they took really made it hit home," Ms. Blakeman says. "Nothing was left to chance."
People were screened and searched when they entered public and private buildings alike, she says.
Andrew Brackett, an economics major in his junior year, interned this year with the U.S. Department of Treasury in the office of the deputy chief financial officer.
"I was surprised by just how grateful people were to get the help. (The office) lost a large amount of people due to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and there's a huge gap to fill," he says.
Mr. Brackett of Tynsboro worked on trouble-shooting and training employees on using a computer requisitioning system. He says that he gained a lot of confidence, technical skills and, particularly, contacts during his semester in Washington.
"Networking is a goal. It's just something you won't get at school," he says.
Ms. Roy agrees that an internship can give students a competitive edge when they search for future internships and jobs.
"Networking is so important in gaining employment," she says. "Employers are very impressed with the experiences students gain through the Washington Center program."
Ms. Maldonado's supervisors at the FAA gave her contacts at local airports near her home to help her find a summer job in the aviation field. Mr. Brackett was even offered a job with the Department of Treasury in D.C. when he completed his internship.
Ms. Roy encourages students to intern with the Washington Center because they get to live independently and are exposed to other students from other states and countries.
"Interning is a way of testing out the field to see if it's something you're interested in," she says.
"My favorite part of my experience was being able to live on my own," says Mr. Silva, the intern who worked in Rep. Meehan's office. "You get to see how well you handle a 9 to 5 job, how you handle your financial situation, and you learn a lot about yourself."
Rachel Lopes says her internship at the Chamber of Commerce has helped her take on new challenges.
"I'm no longer afraid of taking that leap," she says. "If given the task, I can accomplish it. I'm getting ready to take on another internship abroad and I have the confidence from my D.C. experience."
Ms. Lopes and Mr. Silva both made lasting friendships with other interns while in Washington, D.C.
"Some of my best friends I got from that experience," says Ms. Lopes.
The students believe that their time in Washington was an extraordinary event in their college education.
"I got to meet a lot of people and go to a lot of cool places through my work," says Ms. Blakeman. "It has definitely shown me a lot more of the world."
Experiencing the cultural aspects and touring the historical city were added perks to interning with the Washington Center.
"It was nice being across from the White House," laughs Ms. Lopes. "It was a good view."

This story appeared on Page B1 of The Standard-Times on June 11, 2004.