Affiliated Programs: Washington Semester Program at American University

Considering a semester in the nation's Capitol? Diane Lowenthal, associate dean of Academic Programs at American University, discusses the unique experiences available for students interested in political science, activism, journalism, and international studies.

“During the academic year, all of our students intern two full days a week and then spend three full days in seminars with their professors.”

In the Washington Semester Program, all students intern for two days a week. Where?

Virtually everywhere you can think of in Washington, D.C. I have had students probably in 100 different congressional offices over the years. In all of the National Party Committees, not just the Democratic and Republican National Committees, but their House and Senate committees, and other third parties.

Students find that some of the most rewarding internships are at interest groups or non-governmental organizations that are working on very focused issues that intersect with student's own interests. These offices are often relatively small, so student interns have great opportunities to really take hold of a project and contribute seriously.

We have had students in our journalism programs, interning at every major network, in every Sunday news program and top blogs that are based here in Washington or at least have Washington offices. So we've had students get really great bylines on stories that I wish I could've written.

For those interested in foreign policy, we've had students at the State Department or working for former State Department officials who are now running either think tanks or other organizations that are attempting to influence what's going on in specific parts of the world.

How do students find internships?

We have the largest internship database in Washington with thousands of internships at any given time. Students find their own internships, but we don't just expect them to comb through the internship database on their own. They have a professor who supervises their internship and works closely with them to identify the types of positions that might be appropriate given their academic and career goals.

And we have an internship bazaar at the very beginning of each semester where students have the opportunity to meet with about 100 sites who are looking specifically for interns from our programs because they've had good experiences with high-quality interns, especially from some of our great member schools.

Elizabeth McMahon, a 1996 Illinois Wesleyan graduate, is currently radio producer for the Kojo Nnamdi Show at NPR affiliate WAMU 88.5 FM in Washington, D.C. As a junior, she took a journalism semester in the Washington Semester Program at American University.
Meet her.

What is the balance between internships and classes? What is a typical week's schedule?

Sometimes students are able to find a few hours on their seminar days to squeeze in some extra time at their internships. But often the seminar days can be really busy.

For example, if you're taking a seminar on American politics with me, you might find yourself in a class discussion to start off a new topic where we'll talk about Congress and its responsibilities, just to make sure we're all on the same page and know the current hot topics about Congress. And then we'll hear from several experts on Congress, likely from people who are working on Capitol Hill...maybe we hear from a Democratic and Republican member of Congress. Then we'd also likely hear from some staff who can tell us how Congressional offices work.

And by the end of the week, after we've heard from three or four speakers, we'll probably finish with an activity, maybe a simulation or a discussion that pulls together all of this information. It's a very active learning approach. Students who come here tend to be really passionate about getting information in a different way from a traditional classroom.

All of our guest speakers encourage students to ask questions afterwards, and often share their contact information so that students can contact them later perhaps to work on a research project, or when they are looking for a job, or for the next internship. So it's really a great networking opportunity, even in the classroom.

What do students come to study?

That depends on the year that they come, the time of year, and what's going on in the world. And what's going on in programs in specific areas of study.

For example, at the height of election cycles, I get students who want to learn what campaigns are all about, and get involved and spend their time outside the classroom interning for campaigns, either for individual candidates or for political parties or working for interest groups. Right after elections, we often get students who are really motivated by something that a particular candidate stood for. Those students may intern in Congress and try to bring about change on a particular issue. So I get students who are idealistic but realistic and want to know more about what is going on.

Beyond the American politics programs, we see students who are interested in particular world issues, like sustainability. The program also attracts students who are sometimes disturbed by learning about human rights violations and want to gain a better understanding of why these things are happening, where they're happening, and where laws have been put into effect in response.

Who can students expect to meet in their classes?

A typical class includes students from all over the world. Probably about 90% of our students come from what we call member institutions. Illinois Wesleyan is one of more than 200 such institutions around the world.

In recent years, most classes will have some representation from students from Germany, France, Norway, Mexico, Japan, Korea...I know I'm missing some. Each semester we usually have at least fifteen different countries, and about 40 states in the U.S.

“As a university set in Washington, D.C., we have a lot of opportunities.”

And what about living in Washington, D.C.? And campus life?

Campus life here at American University is exciting.

We are constantly hosting famous politicians. President Obama has spoken on campus twice, Michelle Obama has been on campus a couple of times. We've hosted members of presidential administrations, including sitting Secretaries of State, Secretaries of Defense, or Secretaries of the Treasury. We have a lot of people who have retired from those positions; we like having people who've retired because they're often a little bit more open and can tell us what's behind the scenes. We have former Chiefs of Staff tell us what life was really like in the White House.

The University also brings in bands for concerts, cultural events. American University has a lot of clubs just as Illinois Wesleyan does. Those are a lot of fun, too.

I think it's important to recognize that students in our programs have access to all of the resources at American University. Not just all the fun stuff, but also our writing center, our academic support center, our library – libraries, I should say, and a host of other resources, including our health center and counseling centers, if students need them.

Interviewed at the American University campus.