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Legislative Internship Program Is a Capital Idea

April 29, 2012

By Ashley McLeod
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – At this year’s legislative session, 29 college students from across the state took part in Virginia Capital Semester, an internship program run by Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The students interned with members of the General Assembly, watching and even shaping how laws are made.

The Wilder School developed the program 10 years ago with the goal of pairing students with members of the House and Senate. Interns work with legislators and see government in action.

“The goal is to give top students around the commonwealth the opportunity to gain extremely valuable hands-on experience at the Capitol,” said Jen Thompson, director of the Capital Semester program.

Students are not the only beneficiaries; legislators benefit, too. Interns perform various jobs for them, such as handling constituent inquiries, writing newsletters, tracking legislation, meeting with lobbyists and attending committee hearings.

“It really is a service to the legislators, who need really excellent and strong help during the course of the session,” Thompson said.

Paul Tindall, a political science major at VCU, was one of the students chosen to participate in Capital Semester this session. Interning with Delegate Bob Brink of Arlington, Tindall handled communications in the lawmaker’s office – from writing blog posts and drafting the delegate’s weekly YouTube script to meeting with lobbyists and constituents.

“It allowed me to get my foot in the door of Virginia politics, meet the people I need to know – but more personally, it allowed me to focus in on what I wanted to do post-grad,” Tindall said.

Tindall said he could access the legislative process in a way most citizens never experience. Of all the things he learned, the most important had nothing to do with legislation or politics.

“All of the bluster and posturing that you see on the floor of the House is well and good, but behind the scenes, it isn’t party affiliation that makes people like or dislike you – it’s you,” Tindall said. “Republican or Democrat, in the end we’re all working towards what we see as the best path for Virginia. And even when we disagree, we’d do well to remember that.”

Capital Semester interns also take a three-credit course taught by Bill Leighty, former chief of staff to Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

“We talk about the various barriers to bills becoming law, the various processes that have to be accomplished in order for a bill to become law,” Leighty said. “We talk about the politics of the bills and essentially teach the student how they can avoid the traps that befall most bills that are out there.”

The seminar brings in guests such as House Speaker William Howell, leaders from both political parties, lobbyists and news reporters.

Students see how legislators work together despite political differences.

“An important aspect most students take away from the class is how congenial the members actually are with one another, which doesn’t come across in the newspaper, as well as the professionalism and the very critical role that lobbyists play in the legislative process,” Leighty said.

Capital Semester invites legislators to volunteer to have an intern. According to Thompson, there are always more legislators wanting interns than there are students in the program. Students and legislators are paired based on their interests, goals and party affiliation.

Although the program is sponsored by VCU and academic credit is granted by VCU, students from all universities and majors are invited to apply.

For more information on the Capital Semester program, visit the program’s website at www.vcu.edu/capitalsemester.

This article was published by The Commonwealth Times.