Political Internships Guide Future Aspirations

by Kourtney Kawano | 8/11/16 7:52pm

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Jessica Kocan ’18 interned at the American Enterprise Insititue last spring term in Washington D.C.
Source: Courtesy of Jessica Kocan

Now that we have officially passed the halfway mark of our undergraduate careers, the push to find work during off-terms or study programs is becoming more essential as we begin “the hardest year at Dartmouth” according to the undergraduate deans.

To gain experience in the political world, there are many routes that Dartmouth students can take. They can apply to specific posts on their own, such as the ones at White House, State Department or the offices of members of Congress.

The Rockefeller Center accepts funding applications for all unpaid internships with clear ties to activities that help shape and determine public policy. Of the internships that the Rockefeller Internship Program funds, 56 percent are at government agencies, 25 percent are at non-profit organizations and 15 percent are at think tanks, Rockefeller Center program officer Sam Williamson said.

Each spring, students participating in the government department’s domestic study program in Washington, D.C. also complete an internship as part of their curriculum.

During the program this past spring, Annie Huang ’18 and Ruben Gallardo ’18 interned at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research institute.

Huang served as a research assistant for the economic policy research department. She worked on citations of papers written by various scholars and collected data for a project focused on analyzing the relationship between Supreme Court decisions involving publically traded companies and the stock price of those companies.

Gallardo worked for the institute’s external affairs department with an emphasis on media relations. His internship entailed planning events and talks as well as completing the citations and bibliography of an article before it was published.

That particular experience, he noted, was special because he realized the article’s author was Maura Corrigan, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice. On another occasion, Gallardo met Arthur Brooks, the current president of AEI and a New York Times bestselling author.

“Interacting with these scholars was a great way to learn about politics,” Gallardo said.

Huang also noted the wide range of scholars with distinguished public service and policy careers that worked at AEI, including Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president.

During this period, Jessica Kočan ’18 also worked at the AEI during her off-term as an intern for Frederick Kagan’s critical threats project.

To get the position, Kočan reached out to Elena Zinski ’15 and Emily Estelle ’15 for contact information at the institute after expressing interest in the counterterrorism department. She applied and received Rockefeller Center funding, she said.

Kočan, an Asian and Middle Eastern studies major, read daily news reports in Arabic about conflicts and terrorism primarily in Yemen and the Horn of Africa and produced political analyses. Then, she and a colleague would work together to generate a forecast about what events would occur in the following week based on trends observed in the previous week.

During her internship, she made two accurate forecasts.

First, she predicted there would be an increase in ground clashes on the Northern Yemeni-Saudi border between Saudi forces and Yemeni militant forces in an area that is affected both by terrorism and a civil war. Second, she predicted a major terrorist attack would occur in Aden, a port city in southern Yemen.

She said that as an analyst dedicated to ensuring national security, these accurate predictions were both rewarding, but bittersweet because of the violent nature of her research.

“The terrorist attack was an event where it is unfortunate to be correct, but rewarding to develop analytical skills that I’d like to keep improving,” Kočan said.

Although it may seem extensive knowledge in politics or economics is required to apply for these internships, Huang and Gallardo said that is not necessarily the case. There is no clearly defined formula or checklist that will guarantee one will receive an internship at a think tank.

Gallardo noted that for his external affairs position, exposure to public policy and American politics was helpful, but not a key factor.

During the interview process, Huang said although she was asked about her background in macroeconomics and policy, the institute was mainly concerned about having inherent interest in the work she would need to conduct as an intern.

“There is not a particular skill required to do the work that I did,” she said. “But interest is important,”

However, for an internship geared toward a specific region as Kočan’s, background knowledge in Middle Eastern language and culture was essential. Most, if not all, the articles she read were in Arabic or Somali.

Beforehand, Kočan took Arabic 1, 2 and 3 at Dartmouth and participated in the language study abroad program in Morocco, where she took a course that exposed her to the relationship among individuals of low socioeconomic background and the likelihood of being persuaded to join an extremist terrorist group.

“Realizing that terrorists were targeting boys at a vulnerable age sparked my interest in terrorism and understanding it a little bit more,” Kočan said. “I started doing my own research about ISIS and from there, that interest grew into my current focus on counterterrorism.”

For many of these students, it seems there is a common understanding that an exceptional internship should provide the best in-depth look into what a career in policy, economics or law would look like.

As a student interested in indigenous law, public policy and the judicial system, Kalei Akau ’18 is hoping to intern for Mazie Hirono, one of two United States senators for the state of Hawaii.

“I’m really interested in interning for [Hirono’s] office because I want to understand better the laws, policies and legislations she’s working on,” Akau said. “I’m also looking at other internship opportunities that offer insight into the day-to-day life, the workload and how people in political positions function.”

While Akau hopes to learn more about her home state’s political practices through her internship, Huang was able to learn more about this country’s government by living and working in the nation’s capital.

A native of New Zealand, Huang discovered how much bigger America’s government is compared to her home country’s. The experience, she said, was eye-opening.

“The government is not only a government in America,” she said. “It’s an industry of bureaucrats, contractors, lobbyists, lawyers and associations.”

Because of how this “industry” is compacted into one small geographic area, Huang said students with any interest in policy should consider applying for an internship in Washington D.C.

“I think being a young person in D.C. is very exciting,” Huang said. “It’s a very cool thing to do.”

Williamson said that around 75 percent of the interns that the Rockefeller Center funds enter a similar field post graduation.

Based on his internship experience, Gallardo realized he does not want to pursue academia or research, regardless of the topic. However, he is still interested in politics and is currently looking into a possible internship for a corporate law firm.

Huang expressed interest in exploring different industries immediately after graduating but sees a return to government or policy-making as a long-term goal.

After taking courses in the government department as well as writing courses concentrated in judicial writing, Akau said she plans on applying to law school in addition to seeking political internships in Hawaii.

“It’s interesting to see how law and interpretations of the law can shape how we govern ourselves and impact the future,” she said.

Kočan said her plans to pursue a career in counterterrorism were solidified after her internship at AEI. In the fall, she will be participating in an exchange at the University of Jordan. Though it has not been confirmed, Kočan is in contact with an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, another Washington D.C. based think tank, regarding a possible remote internship that could involve collecting paper sources about conflicts that are printed in Jordan. If not, she has her eye on applying for an internship with the U.S. State Department.