by Tom Parisi
They worked long days, experienced the inner workings of U.S. government and rubbed shoulders with the likes of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
For the three NIU students who interned this past summer in Washington, D.C., the experience did not disappoint.
What’s more, the Illinois State Society awarded scholarships for the current school year to each of the NIU seniors. Hunter Huffman and Nma “Winnie” Okafor both were awarded $750, while the society gave its $1,500 Paul Simon Award to Matthew Venaas.
The Paul Simon Award is given to the top intern from Illinois, selected from a pool of at least 50 Illinois college students who worked in D.C. this summer.
“The fact that all three of us applied for and received scholarships reflects very well on the university,” said Venaas, who also is beginning a term as the elected student representative to the NIU Board of Trustees.
Venaas, an Ottawa native majoring in political science, interned with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (14th District), working 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each weekday. He gave tours of the Capitol to constituents, drafted constituent letters and conducted research on issues, among other tasks.
“On the Hill, you never know who you might bump into,” Venaas said. “I was giving a tour when Nancy Pelosi walked right past us.
“We also had the opportunity to attend an intern lecture series, where we met people like Arlen Specter, Ralph Nader and (U.S. Rep.) Barney Frank. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Interns also were encouraged to attend committee hearings and briefings on particular issues.
“I was privileged to attend several hearings on topics of international magnitude,” said Okafor, a native of Nigeria who interned with U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski (3rd District). “I attended a hearing on the challenges of closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison, on food aid to Africa, on farming assistance programs to Africa and on the illegal immigration issues affecting Mexico and the United States.”
Okafor said she met college students from across the country who also were serving as interns. The NIU students and many other interns lived in housing provided by George Washington University, located in the center of Washington, D.C., just a short walk from the Capitol.
“I enjoyed interacting with peers of great caliber on an intellectual level,” said Okafor, a political science major. “We exchanged ideas and thoughts on the various pressing issues of our time. I also had the opportunity to interact with staffers – many of whom are the bright minds working behind-the-scenes on the current health care reform issue.”
Huffman, a Naperville native majoring in international politics and philosophy, interned with U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo (16th District).
“I’ve learned so much more than I could have sitting through a classroom lecture,” Huffman said. “Now when I read about political theories or the legislative process, I understand exactly how laws are formed and shaped and implemented. It’s like a fog has been lifted.”
Huffman said he shook hands with Nader, among other political celebrities. He also squeezed in visits to the Holocaust Museum, Native American Museum and other Washington, D.C., sites.
But what fascinated him most was the whole political process. “The politics is where the governance is made effective,” he said. “It’s the best way to advocate for what you care about.”
The experience also changed his future plans.
“Congressman Manzullo is a big proponent of the Peace Corps,” Huffman said. “After talking with him, I decided to send in a Peace Corps application.”
NIU political scientist Matthew Streb and department chair Christopher Jones worked with President John Peters and Vice President for University Relations Kathryn Buettner to establish the congressional internship program this year.
After a competitive application process, each of the three NIU students was awarded a $5,000 scholarship to defray the costs associated with the internships.
“The program was a huge success,” Streb said. “And we’re expanding it for next year by offering five scholarships.”
Information about the 2010 internship scholarships will be posted in the future on the Department of Political Science Web site.