by Tom Parisi
Leigh Owano of Rockford was helping get out the vote in local elections even before she was old enough to cast her own ballot.
Following in the footsteps of her politically active mom, Owano as a youngster distributed literature for local candidates, helped put up campaign signs and marched in parades. By the time she reached college, she was working as the office manager for the Winnebago County Republican Central Committee.
Now the NIU junior is preparing to experience the political scene at a whole new level. Owano is one of five NIU students selected to serve congressional internships from May 24 through Aug. 6.
The students each won NIU scholarships to defray associated costs. They will live in housing provided by George Washington University, located in the center of Washington, D.C., just a short walk from the Capitol.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to work on a congressional staff,” says Owano, a political science major. She will serve as a staff intern for U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo (16th District).
“I’m really interested in learning what I can do to get people connected with their representatives in Washington,” she says.
NIU first launched the summer congressional internship program in 2009 to offer experiential learning opportunities in our nation’s capital. The program was expanded from three to five interns for this coming summer.
“The program provides such a valuable learning experience for our students,” says NIU President John Peters, who is a political scientist by training, specializing in studies of public policy and Congress.
“The scholarships enable some of our top students at NIU to work in Washington, experience the inner workings of democracy and meet, learn from and network with our nation’s leaders,” he says.
In addition to Owano, the NIU students selected for the internships are:
Jaclyn Curtis of Hickory Hills, a senior with a double major in history and political science who will intern with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (14th District). Curtis served this past year as director of governmental affairs for the NIU Student Association and dreams of someday serving as a U.S. senator.
Meagan Szydlowski of Hampshire, a graduating senior political science major who will work for U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (19th District). Szydlowski has experience working on state and national political campaigns, has been the recipient of numerous competitive scholarships and served as a senator for the NIU Student Association and as chairwoman of the Illinois College Republican Federation, which oversees all of the College Republican organizations statewide.
David Thomas of West Chicago, a junior with a double major in journalism and political science who will work in the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (5th District). Since September 2007, Thomas has been a mainstay on the staff of the Northern Star, NIU’s student newspaper. He will serve as opinions editor beginning in August and hopes in the future to work as a journalist covering foreign policy and foreign affairs.
Nomeda Tautkute of Naperville, a senior political science major who will intern with U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson (11th District). Tautkute is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and hopes to work in Washington, D.C., following graduation in August. She was born and raised in Lithuania.
“This internship is unreal for me, coming here from a different country and to all of a sudden be an ambassador of NIU working in Washington,” Tautkute says. “It’s humbling.”
The NIU students will have a variety of duties, such as giving tours of the Capitol to constituents, drafting constituent letters and conducting research on issues. They also will have the opportunity to attend an intern lecture series.
NIU political science professor Matthew Streb and department Chair Christopher Jones worked with President Peters and Vice President for University Relations Kathryn Buettner to establish and then expand the scholarship program.
“It’s an opportunity that in many ways can be a life-changing experience, and we want as many students as possible to have that opportunity,” says Streb, who is an adviser to all five interns. “The internship recipients are all students of strong character who excel in the classroom and will represent NIU well in Washington.”