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AU Congressional Fellows Program Matches Students with Women Leaders

Student and Congresswoman on Capitol Hill

It’s an exciting time to be a young woman interested in a career in politics. A record number of women are now serving in Congress, with 74 in the House and 16 in the Senate. A woman even ran for president.

It’s more than ever before, but it’s still not quite 17 percent. SPA's Women and Politics Institute recently launched a program to help women prepare for a career in politics by gaining experience with today’s women leaders.

The Congressional Fellows Program is an internship program for selected students enrolled in the Women, Policy and Political Leadership (WPPL) Certificate Program at the School of Public Affairs. Last year, students worked for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Loretta Sanchez ’84 (D-Calif.). This semester finds a third student in the program interning for Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio).

Vanessa Stevens ’07, now a master’s student at the School of International Service (SIS), interned for Sanchez during her senior year to gain a first-hand understanding of the legislative process.

“People say Congress doesn’t get anything done,” she says. “But to be inside and see the work going on and the amount of work it takes to pass a single bill through the House and Senate, you [get] a better understanding of how much research goes into it, and how much networking—trying to get people not only on your side to vote for it, but to be active champions. In government classes you hear about this, but seeing all it takes to build up momentum is very different.”

Stevens did research, attended briefings and hearings, drafted letters to constituents, gave tours of the Capitol building, and handled constituent letters. She learned that in Sanchez’s district in Orange County, Calif., immigration topped the list of concerns, at least in the mail that Stevens handled.

It also helped her see how important it is for activists to organize and communicate with Congress if they hope to impact the process. “It was surprising to me to see how few people wrote anything about anything international,” says Stevens. “It wasn’t on the radar, it seemed. I didn’t look at e-mails, so maybe more people sent e-mails, but in terms of faxes and hard mail, I can probably say there were less than 25 letters about the war in Iraq.”

In contrast, there were regular letters and calls about immigration, and teachers would call about education legislation. She learned that phone calls by people who appeared educated about the issue and could reference a specific bill number made a greater impression than a sudden flood of calls by less informed voters. Once, for instance, a celebrity comment prompted more than two dozen people to get on board and call about an issue, but they were clearly uninformed, “and therefore had less of an impact,” she notes.

The WPPL interns, of course, do much the same work as other undergraduate interns. “We all start there. There’s a credibility you get for paying your dues and putting in your time answering that mail, answering those calls. That is important work,” Brewer notes.

“However, these [WPPL] students come to the internship with a substantive understanding of women and politics. They’re all enrolled in classes that give them history and expertise, and I think their educational background provides them with a different perspective, an informed perspective, on the experience and work of the member, their boss.”

Stevens doesn’t know where her future will lead. Her wide-ranging interests blend an interest in Latin America with women’s empowerment and peace and conflict resolution. “I’m very concerned about social justice, so I care about both international and domestic issues. I wanted to gain some political experience in case I want to go into politics and government in some form to advocate on behalf of people in the U.S. or other countries.”

Over 80 percent of the women in Congress serve on the Honorary Advisory Board of the Women and Politics Institute. The institute advances the study and discussion of women and politics, promotes opportunities for women in politics, and trains women to become political leaders.