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Washington Semester Takes UAlbany Students to the Heart of the Action

by Greta Petry

Curtis Johnson, 21, a UAlbany senior from Chili, N.Y., near Rochester, has only been in the Washington Semester Program for a few weeks, but has already seen the President.

Johnson is assigned to the Washington office of Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-Clarence, N.Y.-26th ) of western New York.

Washington Semester Group: Front row,L-R(kneeling): Dara Stofenburg, Emma Reynolds, and Elizabeth Butler. Second row: Wendy Suzanne Hale, Sofia Yazykova, Jee Hae Lee, Priya Mehra, Catherine Provost. Third row: Curtis Johnson, Caithlin Murphy, Daniel Stinfil, Prof. Michael Malbin, and Jeff Locke.The UAlbany student was invited by Reynolds’ office to attend a speech President Bush gave in February in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress.

“Attending a speech by George W. Bush was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Johnson, who wants to go to law school.

“I applied for the Washington Semester Program so that I might gain meaningful experience in government and so that I might get a leg up on other graduating seniors in a vastly competitive job and graduate school market,” Johnson said. He and 12 other UAlbany undergraduates are gaining that “leg up” this semester.

Jeff Locke had a similar experience on the other side of the aisle, so to speak. On Locke’s first day of the internship, the 20-year-old junior from Rochester, N.Y., found himself seated near senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) hearing on the problems of the uninsured.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” said Locke, another aspiring attorney who is living with all of the students in Arlington, Va. “The city is great for public transportation, and having the Washington Monument as a backdrop for work every day is inspiring. I was nervous my first day on the job, reading the plaques and seeing the pictures of the directors and senior policy advisers in Senator Kennedy’s HELP minority committee staff office.”

Within days Locke was offered the opportunity to contribute to Kennedy’s response to Bush’s FY2005 budget proposal. The full response was a 30-page document. “It has been a thrill to see my work included in this report, not to mention to be able to have behind-the-scenes access to committee meetings and senior strategy sessions,” Locke said.

The Washington Semester Program is run by the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy’s Department of Political Science.

“Albany is a politically-charged town, but I knew I had to see if Washington could be in my future after college – from the town itself, to the people, to the atmosphere, and to the jobs available,” said Locke.

He was impressed by the credentials of Professor Michael Malbin, who has secured placements for UAlbany students in key offices. Malbin, who earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1973, joined the UAlbany faculty in 1990. He teaches legislative politics, elections, and campaign finance, and directs the Washington Semester Program each spring semester. The students take classes with Malbin on Mondays and Fridays at the offices of the Campaign Finance Institute, a research institute he also heads, and intern the other three days of the week.

One of this semester’s courses focuses on the coming election; the other is a research and writing seminar. But the course work is only a part of the students’ experience.

“They have had a full plate of activities,” said Malbin. Several went to Richmond to campaign during the Virginia presidential primary. Several heard Secretary of State Colin Powell testify, and others went to a conference on AIDS in Africa. In February the group attended an event at the National Press Club, hosted by the Campaign Finance Institute, on the front-loaded presidential primary system. Rep. Michael McNulty arranged a March 5 tour of the White House for the group.

In addition to Locke and Johnson, others working in Congressional offices are: Dara Stofenberg, for Rep. Howard Berman of (D-28th, Van Nuys, Calif.); Catherine Provost, working for Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-7th, representing parts of the Bronx and Queens, N.Y.); Daniel Stinfil, working for Rep. Major Owens (D-11th, Brooklyn, N.Y.); and Priya Mehra, working at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. Michelle Newman is at the Department of Justice in the Office of Justice Programs; and Jee Hae Lee is assigned to the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Office of Policy. IBB is the umbrella organization that oversees “Voice of America.”

Other interns include: Caithlin Murphy, at the American Public Health Association; Elizabeth Butler, at the Center for American Progress; Emma Reynolds, at the Children’s Defense Fund; Wendy Suzanne Hale, at Hill & Knowlton; and Sofia Yazykova, at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Provost, a junior, finds the internship to be “incredible,” the work meaningful, and is pleased to find she is treated as an equal by the office staff. “I feel as if I am serving a purpose in our nation’s government,” she said.

“On my first day on the Hill, I found myself in the back of a shiny black Lincoln with my congressman on my way to a luncheon reception with U. N. laureate winners,” Provost said. “In one week I’ve seen Colin Powell, [Senate Minority Leader] Tom Daschle, Secretary [of the Department of Homeland Security Tom] Ridge, [House] Speaker [J. Dennis] Hastert, the ambassadors to Ecuador, Israel, and the President of Spain. I am living a political science student’s dream,” said Provost.