For nearly 50 years, students have had a window into how D.C. works
During this past election year, Henry Schulz ’22 felt like he had a front row seat to history.
With his semester in CMC’s Washington program completed, Schulz was packing up his D.C. apartment, and reflecting on the many memorable moments from fall 2020, culminating in the post-election celebrations in the streets just below his apartment.
And then there was Schulz’s internship at the Mellman Group, a public opinion research firm. With clients who were running for Congress and governorships, Schulz gained significant experience in a fast-paced work environment during an election year.
“It was exhilarating,” said Schulz, who is a government major.
Professional internships are at the core of CMC’s Washington program, which for nearly 50 years has provided students from the 5Cs a window into how Congress really works, how lobbyists influence policymaking and how professionals in the nonprofit sector advocate for their causes.
Over the years, students have gained valuable D.C. experience interning for the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the White House, as well as think tanks, law firms, nonprofits, consulting firms, and media organizations.
CMC’s success can be measured by the number of alumni who currently live or work in D.C. “We have more than 500 alumni in the area,” said Maija Harkonen, director of the CMC’s Washington program. “The experiences our students get in D.C. are so powerful that many of them return and work for various agencies, nonprofits, and congressional offices once they graduate.”
And then there’s the lure of the city itself, a dynamic hub where students can get a taste of what it’s like to actually live and work there.
Michael Shear ’90, White House Correspondent for the New York Times, spent the second semester of his junior year in the Washington program as a reporting intern in the Los Angeles Times D.C. Bureau. Shear’s experience in the program was invaluable, and he remains actively involved with students and alumni.
“Washington is the place where everything comes together — the collision of economics, tech policy, politics, climate and the environment, diplomacy, and just about every other subject. That’s what I love about the city, and why it’s a great place to spend a semester as part of the CMC program,” said Shear.
“The program is not just for people who want to work in a congressional office, though you can do that, too,” he continued. “Whether you work in an advocacy capacity or for a politician or with a lobbying firm, it’s a chance to delve into your topic in a different way — less academic and more practical.”
In addition to working as interns, students in the Washington program take three academic courses, which include “Problems in Public Policy” and “Power, Politics, Persuasion in D.C.,” as well as a research project. The students also engage in networking and cultural activities curated by Harkonen.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harkonen had to revamp the traditional Washington program activities to fit an online format. She invited high-level government officials, former ambassadors, and politicians to speak to the students via Zoom. “We also encouraged students to participate in numerous virtual discussions about U.S. domestic policy issues or international relations at various think tanks,” she said.
And this fall, Harkonen seized an opportunity to innovate, organizing a new mentorship program. “l invited D.C. practitioners -- mostly CMC alumni-- to mentor our interns. It’s a promising program that helps our students to learn more about what it means to work in federal agencies, for the military or in congressional offices. The mentors offer advice on how to get a job and how to advance once they do get a job.”
Schulz’s mentor was Keith Chu ’03, chief communications adviser and deputy policy director for Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, ranking member on the Senate finance committee. “Keith gave me insight into a career in political communications, what it looks like to be at the intersection of communications and policy,” said Schulz, who plans to return to D.C. in the summer to gain experience working on Capitol Hill.
For Misty Thomas ’02, who spent the spring 2001 semester as part of the Washington program, the experience provided “profound building blocks” for her career as a public interest lawyer, now executive director of The Council for Court Excellence. “I interned for the American Bar Association in their civil rights and social justice division. I ended up going back to work [after earning a JD from Georgetown Law] for the ABA doing criminal justice and death penalty reform work. During my time in the Washington program, I built relationships and found mentors, supporters and opportunities that have fueled my career.”
And now it’s Thomas’ turn to serve as a career guide to current Washington program students. She estimates that over the years she has hired six Claremont interns, including two this semester to help her organization—a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to ensure that the justice system in Washington, D.C. is fair and equitable—with policy research, writing, and coalition support.
“While it’s true that an internship can be a formative experience that can launch your passion and career, I also see how important the program’s students are to the organizations where they work,” she said. “The students who are drawn to the Washington program are excellent. They offer my nonprofit organization great support, and we try to offer really cool work experiences, which is why we give students meaty, substantive tasks help them grow.”
Schulz said he felt CMC had prepared him well for the challenges of the Washington program and for taking on a leadership role in his internship. “Academically speaking, because I’m a government major taking classes in political science, I’ve gained an expertise,” he said. “Also, taking courses from Prof. Jack Pitney, who because he worked in government himself, can provide a pragmatic point of view. That helped me make sense of what’s going on, to understand the intricacies.”
Overall, for Thomas, her Washington program semester “did exactly what I hoped it would do--and what still keeps me in Washington now—to enable me to surround myself with people who are passionate about their work and their country.”