Political science students sharpen skills in D.C. internship program

October 12th 2015
Giving, Students
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Kelsey Kleist is used to juggling a packed schedule.

During her time on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the senior political science major has: played for the Badgers softball team, joined the UW marching band, run an after-school reading program for elementary school students, and worked in the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Senate Sergeant at Arms office. All while taking a full load of courses.

So she has some perspective when she sums up her summer in the Department of Political Science’s Washington, D.C., internship program.

"It was definitely the most productive summer that I've ever had," says Kleist, who spent her break working for the Coalition for Community Schools, a nonprofit organization that fosters connections between schools and their surrounding communities.

Like the rest of her summer cohort of 25 political science students, Kleist's days were full: from communications work, to policy research, to event management, to advocacy trips to Capitol Hill.

[caption id="attachment_17920" align="alignleft" width="350"]Senior Kelsey Kleist is an intern in the Wisconsin State Legislature's Senate Sergeant at Arms Office. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science) Senior Kelsey Kleist is an intern in the Wisconsin State Legislature's Senate Sergeant at Arms Office. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)[/caption]

"I've always had an interest in domestic policy, but when you're in the nation's capital, it's on a totally different level," she says.

For the past decade, the D.C. internship program has brought UW-Madison political science students to the forefront of American politics, with scholarship support from the department's board of visitors and other donors. Students work for groups across the political spectrum, from nonprofits advocating for policy changes, to the offices of U.S. representatives and senators on both sides of the political aisle.

They also do coursework on public policy and professional development, while meeting with D.C.-area alumni throughout the summer.

Internships are critical opportunities for liberal arts students across the College of Letters & Science to shape their professional paths, and L&S graduates frequently credit their internships with helping them land their first jobs.

"It truly is a transformative experience. People's lives are changed — in good ways," says Joel Clark, the political science D.C. program and internships coordinator. "Until you do it, you really don't know how you can be pushed and challenged. But once the students do it, I really think a lot of them are changed — they get jobs, they re-think their goals and they enhance their resumes and contacts."

"It truly is a transformative experience. People's lives are changed — in good ways."
— Joel Clark, D.C. program coordinator

Some students, like Andy Yang (B.A.'15, Philosophy and Political Science), discover a new career interest. Yang, who interned with OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, realized he had a knack for project management after running leadership advocacy training for younger interns and coordinating Congressional visits.

"I enjoy seeing all the pieces, knowing where everything's going to go, knowing what's going to happen and what time, putting it all together," he says.

Kleist's D.C. experience inspired her to revive an after-school program she ran as a sophomore at the Vera Court Neighborhood Center on Madison's north side. She's planning to build on the knowledge she gained at her internship, drawing on the collaborative and supportive spirit of the community schools concept — using a school as a hub that connects public and private community partners (such as United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, health care organizations and more) with families and hosts activities that strengthen the community.

And Kleist plans to utilize other skills she honed in D.C. — research methods, adaptability and more — beyond graduation in December. She'd like to work somewhere in the political process in Wisconsin, ideally in a position at the intersection of criminal justice, education and public policy.

"I think community schools kind of align with how we can take care of our youth so that we don't have this school-to-prison pipeline," she says. "I want to help people."