"Semester in Washington" students get their hands on the levers of power.
Summer can be slow for the Washington intern: Politicos leave town to palm the public. Yuppies lounge on the soft meadows of Capitol Hill or swig margaritas at Bullfeather's. And the average harried bureaucrat usually beats it out to Bethany Beach.
So JMU's Semester in Washington takes place in the spring ‹ when Congress is in session and things are happening. (Of course, the two aren't always mutually exclusive.) In spring 1999, it brought together 23 students for internships in government, media and other organizations surrounding the nation's capital. Talk about a time when things were happening.
"Oh my gosh, it was wild,'' says JMU junior Lindsey Hodges, who interned in the office of GOP Virginia Sen. John Warner. Not only were the first two months devoted to the Senate Impeachment trial, but they were followed immediately by the U.S. conflict in Kosovo.
"We were very busy,'' says Hodges. "Since Warner was considered a swing vote [in the impeachment trial], we had constituents calling from all over the country. And there was a large amount of mail.
"I don't know why, but we had people calling from California. I think that was because they have two Democratic senators. These were Republican callers who thought they could make a difference.''
Besides the phone and the mail, Lindsey also helped staff members handle specific issues. She was struck by how her internship differed from the notion of government as a faceless bureaucracy.
"I saw young, idealistic people working pretty hard to get things done,'' she says. "I didn't see people just sitting around. They're working hard.''
That's exactly why the semester program is held in the spring. On top of that, it's hard work just to get into the Semester in Washington program.
"We don't line up the internships,'' says Chris Blake, a JMU political science professor who was the Semester in Washington's first faculty adviser in spring 1997. "We are a resource. We require the students to identify and get their own internship opportunities.
"That's an important experience for them because when they graduate from college ‹ and on multiple occasions ‹ they're going to have to find a job. By identifying internship opportunities, whether they [ending up getting] them or not, it's a very good experience.''
And one never knows when an intern might luck into a presidential impeachment. Hodges will never forget the feeling of sitting in the Senate gallery, lorded over by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, while 100 senators mulled the political fate of President Clinton.
"While I was watching it, I was thinking, 'Am I really here or am I watching C-SPAN?'''
She was fortunate enough to be in the gallery during Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers' passionate speech in defense of his fellow Arkansan.
"He was enjoyable,'' says Hodges. "I stayed the whole time, for the entire two hours. He was a very good orator even though I didn't agree with him.
"Every once in a while, he would say something funny, and everyone was laughing, and very rarely does that happen.
"It was tense. There were people shuffling in and out, but you couldn't even breathe loud. The people down below didn't want to be there, and the people there did because they knew how important it was.''
On top of the internships, the students had evening classes together three days a week. Devin Bent, who, as former head of political science helped pilot the program, says the message students have given the department is that there is too much work.
"We've attempted to change that, but it doesn't seem to work,'' he says. "When you're taking four credits for your internship, you have to take three more courses.'' Hodges, however, says the workload was just right. "Any more would be too much,'' she says.
Blake advises future Semester in Washington interns to manage their time carefully and take advantage of meeting people from all walks of life.
"They need to push themselves to talk to people they don't know, strike up conversations with people they would not normally meet,'' he says.
The St. Petersburg, Fla., resident says while he enjoyed taking in the Smithsonian museums and other aspects of the District, he says supporting a program that's "very valuable personally'' to students was the main reward. Having Congress so close also enabled Blake to start a course in welfare reform, a hot topic during spring 1997, with a speaker who served on the Senate committee negotiating the issue.
"Another big example was about half the students attended the inauguration [of President Clinton],'' says Blake. "I had a four-month-old baby, so we were not going to go outside. We watched it on TV just like we would have done if we were here.''
Students lived together in suites in a brownstone off Connecticut Ave. in Northwest Washington. They also had computer banks with access to the Internet. Faculty advisers lived away from the students. Robin Teske was the faculty-in- residence in spring 1999.
"It was nice to have that piece of school away from JMU,'' says Hodges of living in the same building. "Everyone knew where D-Hall was or they read The Breeze.''
Because they were political, however, agreement came to a standstill in other areas. "Oh gosh, we tried not to talk about politics,'' she says. "There were two Democrats, and then my roommate and I were Republicans, so we would just talk about what happened in the office that was out of the ordinary.''
And there were plenty of those days, especially when Hodges was working the phone. The Warner office had a list of repeat callers, especially during the impeachment days. A lot of these were Warner's supposed "really close'' friends. When Hodges informed one such gentleman she was an intern, she says with a chuckle, he lit in to her.
"He just proceeded to yell, 'Get out while you can! This is not the place for you!''' says the Gloucester resident.
When she had spare time, Hodges and the others took in the capital sights. She used her perks, too, by taking her parents and grandparents to the Senate Dining Room, the back rooms of the Capitol and even the senator's personal office.
She says she felt "ahead of the rest of the world'' living in Washington, knowing about legislation before anyone else, it seemed. Last summer, after the internship, she worked as counselor at a summer camp in "the sticks'' of Golden, Mo., about 45 miles from Branson.
"And that's not a big place,'' Hodges says of the Vegas of the Midwest. "It put me back big time.''
After she graduates from JMU in May 2000, the political science major and political communications minor says she would like to work in state politics.
"I'm not big into the city life,'' she says. "I kind of enjoy the suburban areas and would enjoy being a staffer of a representative or a delegate.''
Story by Patrick Butters ('83)
Photos by Tyler Mallory