This semester, the Oregon State Capitol is populated with more than its usual staffers. Several Willamette students have taken advantage of internship opportunities across the street, working with legislators, lobby groups, agencies and even within the Governor’s office. During this legislative session, which began in late January and will last into the summer, two classes’ worth of students have been working several hours a week within the legislature, gaining professional experience and knowledge of government.
Students who were interested in working in the legislature signed up for PPLE (Politics, Policy, Law and Ethics) 398, or Legislative Internship, last fall during registration. The class meets once a week, in two separate sections, and students are expected to fulfill a 120-hour work requirement throughout the semester. Interns were also required to locate their own internships before the semester started, which proved harder than anticipated for some students. Owen Thomas (‘21), who chose to attend Willamette for the internship opportunities, spent hours researching legislators who served on committees he found interesting.
“I struck out epically over the phone and over emails,” he said. “About a couple of days before the internship class started I just went to the office in the Capitol of one of the legislators I hadn’t gotten a response from, and it turned out they just hadn’t gotten to me yet. So, I got an interview later that day with Representative Cheri Helt (R-Bend), and they liked what I had to say and I liked what they had to say and they basically gave me the job on the spot.”
For other students, the process was simpler. Henry Harder (‘20), who will be attending Willamette Law next year through the 3+3 Program, knew that he wanted to work for a legislator on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I wanted to intern for Senator Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), who is the Vice Chair of that committee,” he said. “I was actually pretty successful — I was able to send my email and get a phone interview, and my supervisor was really friendly and really liked what I had to say. So I guess I got really lucky, all things considered.”
Over the past few months, Thomas and Harder have been experiencing the legislature firsthand. Both work around eight to 10 hours each week, with Thomas interning in the mornings four days a week and Harder spending approximately five hours in the office twice a week. As interns, they spend their time answering constituent comments, filing paperwork, researching policy and attending meetings, hearings and floor sessions.
“It’s a lot better than I expected. I think I expected to be doing more grunt work than I have been doing. A lot of it’s more challenging than I expected, and I really like that,” said Thomas.
Along with students who are taking PPLE 398, there are various WU students who intern at the Capitol on their own time. First-year Bethany Abbate works for Senator Lee Beyer (D-Springfield) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, an internship that she said mostly developed due to prior connections. Before coming to WU, Abbate worked on political campaigns and interned for U.S. Senator Ron Wyden in his Portland office during her senior year of high school.
All three interns reported having new understandings of government since beginning their internships. Harder observed that relationships between legislative members are relatively amicable, compared to on the federal level.
“One notable trend is that, at least here in Oregon, Democrats and Republicans get along a little better than I expected,” Harder observed. “At least, members get along better than I expected. There are a lot of issues that require both parties to take action and that they both agree on, so I think that’s something that I needed to rediscover.”
Thomas, who identifies as a Democrat working in a Republican’s office, echoed those sentiments, adding that party lines aren’t always seen as barriers in the State Capitol.
“It seems like state government, since there’s less pressure on all the legislators individually, are more independent in how they think about things than they probably are at the federal level. So, legislators genuinely persuading each other is a much more common thing, and that makes all the research you do a little more impactful,” Thomas said.
Abbate, on the other hand, pointed out that there are negative sides of state government as well.
“[Based on my prior internships], I now have three different lenses to compare: campaigning, federal and state level politics,” she said. “Out of these three political avenues, I have learned that my least favorite sector is the state legislature. I find the functionality of the Legislature to be very frustrating for multiple reasons. I think everyone is extremely underpaid for the amount of work that goes into making things happen around there… I understand that this is just my opinion, that there are plenty of people that love the atmosphere. I believe it is a great experience for young people figuring out how politics work.”
Abbate also cautioned other students against interning at the Capitol during their first year, saying that it’s been hard to balance her homework along with working two days a week.
“Even if you are an enthusiastic freshman, please put your school work and personal well-being first. You have three more years, plus summers, to do internships,” she said. “Now, while you are an intern, my biggest advice is to make connections! And that means making connections beyond just the office you’re working for. Everyone here wants to help you succeed.”
Thomas and Harder also offered words of wisdom to future interns, citing the experience as being eye-opening and valuable.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity,” said Thomas. “If you think it’s something that might be the right fit for you, it could be. It makes the slog of doing your classes easier if you come back to campus from doing something really rewarding and satisfying.”
Featured Caption: The Oregon State Capitol has been the workplace of multiple students this semester as they intern in the Oregon Legislature.
Credit: Maira Romanov