by Tom Parisi
Three NIU students will live, learn and work in the heart of the nation’s capital this summer under a new university-established congressional internship program.
Hunter Huffman, Nma “Winnie” Okafor and Matthew Venaas each have won $5,000 scholarships to defray the costs associated with the internships. The three NIU students will live in housing provided by George Washington University, located in the center of Washington, D.C., just a short walk from the Capitol.
Huffman will intern with U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo (16th District); Okafor with U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski (3rd District); and Venaas with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (14th District). Each of the students will report to work Monday, May 25, work 40-plus hours per week and complete the internships Saturday, Aug. 8.
“At NIU, we value experiential learning,” said President John Peters, who is a political scientist by training, specializing in studies of public policy and Congress. “These scholarships will allow some of our top students to work in the halls of Congress, network with our nation’s movers and shakers and participate in the inner workings of our democracy.”
NIU political scientist Matthew Streb and department Chair Christopher Jones worked with President Peters and Vice President for External Affairs Kathryn Buettner to establish the scholarship program.
“This is simply an opportunity that we can’t provide in the classroom,” Streb said. “I can teach the theories of Congress, but I can’t show students the experience. And, from the point of view of members of Congress, it’s a great program because we’re giving them top-notch interns.
“We’re hoping to expand the program a year from now,” Streb added. “We already have lawmakers lined up.”
The scholarships are competitive. More than 20 highly qualified students applied for the three internships this summer.
Each of the scholarship winners is not only a top student but also is highly involved in university and service activities.
Huffman, of Naperville, is a 21-year-old junior honors student, majoring in international politics with a minor in philosophy. He has been active in human rights efforts, including the NIU chapter of STAND, an anti-genocide coalition. He also has worked with impoverished youth in Bolivia.
“Words in a textbook can never match the educational experience of participating firsthand in the United States’ political process,” Huffman said. “The U.S congressional internship experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Born in Minnesota and raised in Nigeria, Okafor is a 19-year-old junior honors student (she started at NIU at age 16), majoring in political science with a minor in economics. She is a member of the NIU debate team and has been active in tutoring and peer advisory.
“The focal point of my life, having come from humble means myself, is centered on giving back to the poor,” Okafor said. “I am interested in politics in Nigeria. I hope to return home and change the political system through grassroots involvement in politics just like President Obama has done here. But also on a broader scale, my goal is to advocate for development in Africa as a whole, through microfinance and other similar programs.”
Venaas, of Ottawa, is a 21-year old junior honors student, majoring in political science. He has been actively involved in the NIU Student Association and is the current speaker of the senate. This spring he was elected to serve as the student member to the NIU Board of Trustees.
“Ever since high school, I’ve been interested in politics,” he said. “Having the opportunity to see how things work behind the scenes and to experience the legislative process firsthand will be an amazing experience.”