Temple Students Make an Impact at the State Capital

Capital Semester students

As a senior pursuing political science at Temple University, Connor Graf decided this was the right time to see where his degree could take him.

In his case, this fall it took him to the Pennsylvania’s State Capitol building in Harrisburg, along with 12 other Temple students, all part of the Pennsylvania Capital Semester Program offered during fall 2019 by Temple’s Institute for Public Affairs and Temple University Harrisburg.

Interning with the House State Government Committee and assigned to the Republican research staff, he had already worked directly with multiple House members, interviewed a chairman, met with the governor twice, spoke with the Speaker of the House, sat in on legislative meetings, been introduced on the House floor and had research he completed used by legislators by the halfway mark of the semester.

“I wanted to gain first-hand experience that is simply not possible sitting in a classroom. Having the opportunity to further my education while working in the State Capitol building made for a once in a lifetime experience,” said Graf, who is participating in Temple’s Master’s in Public Policy 4+1 program, which will allow him to complete both his undergraduate and graduate degrees by May 2021. “The opportunity to learn about working day-to-day in the legislative process will benefit me even before entering the workforce. Throughout the internship I was able to acquire knowledge from real work situations and witness the day-to-day job duties that can be expected in a research role.”

Developed in 2009, the Pennsylvania Capital Semester has provided more than 100 Temple students from a wide variety of majors the opportunity to explore government affairs, policymaking and implementation first-hand while being full-time students and staying on track to graduation, according to Dr. Joseph P. McLaughlin, Director of the Temple University Institute for Public Affairs. Internship placements include executive branch agencies, the state legislature and government-related private and non-profit employers, including lobbying and public affairs firms and major interest groups.

Beginning in spring 2020, the Capital Semester program is now administered by the Political Science department. Applications for the program will be accepted throughout the year by Erin Dwyer, internship coordinator for the political science department. The competitive deadline for a possible fellowship from the House of Representatives is Monday, April 20, for fall 2020 enrollment. There is an information session from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, February 20, in Room 821 Anderson Hall for students interested in learning more about the Capital Semester in Harrisburg and also about the similarly structured Washington Semester in the nation’s capital. 

In fall 2019, five students, including Graf, were selected for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Bipartisan Management Committee Fellowships, the highest number of Temple students accepted in one semester according to McLaughlin.

Each year since we started the PA Capital Semester program, (Institute for Public Affairs Associate Director) Michelle Atherton has nominated two or three of the best students who met the early deadline for PA House of Representatives Bipartisan Management Committee (BMC) Fellowships, which supplement our program with additional training by House staff members.  These internships carry a generous stipend,” McLaughlin said. “Temple typically received one or two of these very competitive placements, which require student interviews with a panel of House staffers, out of about six awarded. This year, our talent supply was so deep that Michelle asked for permission to nominate five — all five Temple students out of a total of nine statewide were selected!” 

The BMC program, McLaughlin said, provides the opportunity for the House Fellows to each draft a bill with supporting analysis that is introduced by a state House member “and is sometimes passed.”

“Each BMC student has to make an oral presentation of his or her bill at the end of the semester and answer sometimes tough questions from House staffers,” he said.

McLaughlin emphasized that all Capital Semester students, including those not selected for BMC fellowships, get a rich experience. The Capital Semester typically consists of 15 credits — up to nine credits for the internship and six credits in two courses, State Politics and Policy and an internship seminar — Public-Private Cooperation in Public Policymaking and Program Implementation offered at Temple University Harrisburg, located just across the street from the Capitol Building.  Mike Nerozzi, a 2009 Temple political science graduate with a MPA from Shippensburg University and policy director for the Fish and Boat Commission, teaches the internship seminar and arranges for guest speakers in class and special events outside class hours that broaden the students’ exposure to policy making in Pennsylvania .

“Temple students enter the Capital Semester program as anxious undergraduates, and they return as confident young professionals,” McLaughlin said. “For three months, it is a full immersion experience. They are full-time employees of the legislator or committee or private sector firm or interest group for which they are working, gaining experience, networking and interacting with the people who could be their future employers or references for jobs elsewhere.”

Political science senior Sean Welch interned with the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

For the most part I’ve been involved in research. For example, I was involved in the research for a recently proposed ban on flavored vaping products. I truly feel like I’m a critical part of the team; I attend meetings and hearings,” he said. “The Capital Semester at Harrisburg offers a lot of hands-on involvement — you really learn how the sausage is made in terms of how state government works. I wanted to focus on climate change and community advocacy.”

The internship, Welch said, has helped him to think critically about government — “what works and what doesn’t work.”

“The internship is a pipeline to a job. I’ve been able to build connections with hundreds of people I’ve met and worked with,” he said. “I know a Public Health major who was particularly interested in getting into the policy side of things and this is a perfect avenue to do that. I think there’s really something for any major if they have an interest in government and community advocacy — what happens here effects everyone in the state.”

Katherine Weaver, who is studying Political Science and Global Studies at Temple, said interning with the minority office of the House Judiciary Committee under Representative Tim Briggs opened her eyes to a wide range of perspectives.

“In Harrisburg, lawmakers, stakeholders and advocates come together from all over the state, and their views reflect that political diversity. Though I don't always agree with the people I interact with, I know it's important to hear their sides on key issues so I can understand the many different perspectives in Pennsylvania, the United States and the world,” she said. “Inclusivity is one of the values I most strive to uphold, particularly in my professional life. My internship has taught me to see how laws and politics can become more inclusive and equal for people who have previously been excluded. I hope to apply this approach to my future jobs, particularly as an attorney, when the power of the law can achieve great things and, concurrently, cause great damage for these communities.”

BMC scholarship recipient Penny Pappas had a rather unique experience during her internship. She interned with both the House Democratic Human Services Committee and the House Democratic State Government Committee.

“As an intern in both committees, my responsibilities included legislative research, writing bill analyses, co-sponsorship memos, press releases, and doing constituent services. I also had the opportunity to attend committee hearings, stakeholder meetings, and House Session,” she said. “For my final project, I had to draft my own piece of original legislation and present it in front of my caucus. Having this experience on your résumé sets you apart and makes potential employers realize you are serious about your work. Interning with a House committee requires a strong work ethic and helps you build responsible habits such as completing tasks in a timely manner and following strict deadlines, skills that are valuable regardless of what career you follow after graduation.” 

Political science senior Charles Oberdick said his internship experience with the House Democratic Education Committee helped him understand that “communication and cooperation are the keys to success in a group setting.”

“My primary goal with this internship was to transition from my more academic goals of succeeding in my degree to being able to translate my skills in the classroom to a real-world setting. This program has given me a much greater sense of the practical nature of political science and opened up a world of career options after college,” he said.

“The program is open and flexible, the staff in Harrisburg is great and the professors are kind and helpful. Everyone in Harrisburg wants you to succeed in your internship, but it is up to you to put in the effort to make it happen.”

For additional information about Pennsylvania Capital Semester program highlights and application requirements, attend the info session from 1 to 3 p.m. on Thursday, February 20, in 821 Anderson Hall or visit the PA Capital Semester website.