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Valuable Changemaking for Remote Washington Semester Program Interns

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students and mentors
From left to right: Andrew Taber, WSP student from Emory University; Bill Cunningham, CEO and founder, Creative Investment Research; Ashley Castell, WSP student and AU junior; and Dr. John Sherwood, US Navy historian.

Among the “really cool things” Andrew Taber—a student in American University’s Washington Semester Program (WSP)—accomplished during his remote summer internship with DC’s Creative Investment Research (CIR) was a data collection project that led to increasing corporate and institutional pledges to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to $8.8 billion. 

Taber had planned to spend his summer in DC with WSP, attending AU professor Henry DeSio’s US government colloquium and interning with CIR, a research consulting firm that focuses on environmental, social, and corporate governance. That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything went online. Like others in the program, he took his seminar and worked at his internship remotely from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. 

“I got to do a lot of really cool things. I collected the data about total corporate donations in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which nobody else had really done. We were able to basically have that research first,” said Taber, a junior at Emory University. 

Since its inception in 1947, WSP traditionally has been a full-immersion experience that gives students from other colleges and universities access to DC and all its political, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity as they participate in intensive academic seminars at AU with specially tailored internship opportunities available through hundreds of corporate, government, and institutional partners. 

But not this year. WSP began navigating the world of remote internships during the spring semester, when all AU students were suddenly sent home to continue their studies online. About 90 percent of WSP’s students and internship partners continued when the program pivoted, says Adam Anthony, assistant dean for Washington Semester Programs. 

Students found that their remote work was often more meaningful than what they thought it would be had they had an in-person experience. “All of a sudden, interns couldn’t be told by their bosses to make copies or go get coffee. They had to do substantive work. I think they were pleasantly surprised,” Anthony says. 

During the spring, WSP staff and the partner institutions worked fervently to build out the summer remote experience that will continue with modifications in fall semester 2020. While students will proceed with online instruction in alignment with AU policy, they will have the option of interning in person, remotely, or in a hybrid format, Anthony says. 

During his WSP internship with CIR, Taber partnered with CIR founder and CEO William Cunningham to find out exactly how much corporations and institutions had donated to BLM. “Nobody had that information, even though everybody wanted to know it,” said Cunningham, referring to his extensive list of curious contacts at Fortune 500 companies. 

In a June 10 Black Enterprise magazine article, Cunningham announced that the figure was $1.678 billion and credited Taber with the research. Cunningham also shared the information with his Fortune 500 contacts, and within a few weeks, their companies and organizations had matched that amount. 

 “Andrew’s research made a profound difference at a crucial moment in time,” says Cunningham, who credits WSP for delivering him such a top-notch intern.

While WSP is limited to non-AU students during spring and fall semesters, AU students can participate in the summer offering. Ashley Castell, SIS/BA ‘’22, spent her summer as an intern for the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). She transcribed oral histories of US Navy officers who participated in Operation Unified Assistance (OUA), the response to the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, and reviewed articles about OUA, sifting through them to find information relevant to her supervisor’s research.  

Castell, an international studies major, worked from her West Palm Beach, Florida, home under the direction of US Navy historian John Sherwood. She says she chose WSP because she thought it would be a great program to attempt remotely.  “That was pretty much the reason I applied. I thought it was really interesting that you could both have a class once a week that was relevant to my major and have an internship relevant to my major, so it really checked all my boxes,” Castell explains. 

Castell’s experience was most likely richer because she worked remotely. Getting through security at the Navy Yard in Southeast DC is uniquely challenging because it is a military installation. In a pre-pandemic situation, Castell would not have been able to gain physical access to many of the meetings she participated in virtually, Sherwood says. Castell also was able to work with the 10 naval museums around the globe under NHHC. “The remote internship gave Ashley access to all of them, instead of just confining her to what’s in the Washington region,” he explains. 

Sherwood’s live interviews were one of the most memorable parts of Castell’s internship. “He allowed me to take the lead on one interview of a helicopter maintenance officer so I could experience the process of collecting oral histories,” she says. 

Castell thought the colloquium in international affairs with AU professor Christian Maisch, was a rich experience even though it was remote. “We had [many] interesting speakers that would talk to us every week virtually—through live video sessions. The professor was amazing, and it made us feel like we were directly in class,” she says. Castell and Maisch also met one on one on several occasions to determine if she was making progress towards her internship goals. 

And what were her goals? “Mainly I wanted to get some experience [with] office culture. And I actually did experience it even though I was at home,” Castell says. 

Taber says his US government seminar with DeSio required much introspection and analysis. “I think the professor did a fantastic job of checking in with everyone and making sure everyone was having a rewarding experience both in their internship and with the program in general,” Taber said. 

A survey of WSP participants reveals that other members of the summer cohort had similarly rich experiences. Of those who responded, 67 percent said the experience “exceeded their expectations” and 33 percent reported that it “met their expectations.”

“I think I had as good an experience online—if not better—as I would have had had I gotten to go to DC,” Taber says.