A prestigious intern program that places UOW students at the centre of the US political system is helping graduates forge exciting careers after graduation.
On 20 January 2009, millions of people around the world watched as then Senator Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. It was a bitterly cold day in Washington DC, but close to two million people braved the elements to witness the historic event.
University of Wollongong (UOW) students James Deane and Lily Frencham were among the crowds standing along the National Mall, watching as President Obama took the Oath of Office and delivered his first inaugural address. For Lily and James, two Australian students witnessing one of the defining events of modern American history, it was an unforgettable moment.
“The atmosphere was absolutely incredible, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Lily says of the day, which is still seared in her memory almost eight years later. “We were overtired and freezing, but you couldn’t help but be pumped. It was electric. Washington was completely buzzing and, even though it sounds like a cliché, there truly was a feeling of hope and anticipation in the air. It was an amazing time to be there.”
James and Lily are part of a number of UOW students who have experienced the intricacies and intrigues of the United States political system through the prestigious Uni-Capitol Washington Internship Program (UCWIP). Created 18 years ago and directed since pro bono by Eric K Federing, a former senior congressional advisor and communications director, the program enables students to add context to their university studies and gain valuable experience on an international level.
For his work, Federing was appointed to the Order of Australia in 2015. By day, Federing is a Managing Director for KPMG LLP and serves as Treasurer for the congressionally chartered National Conference on Citizenship.
For many participants, UCWIP has been a jumping off point to a career in aid, policy and international relations, a chance to hone their skills and expertise before plunging into the real world of life after university.
In 2009, James and Lily represented UOW in Washington DC, but each took on unique roles suited to their skills and interests; one of the key reasons the program is so popular is its ability to pair students with the right Congressional role.
Lily, who was studying a combined degree in Law and Media, spent her time as a press intern for Congressman John Tierney, then chair of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. As part of this role, she prepared the Congressman’s response to President Obama’s first State of the Union speech as well as briefing packets for a congressional delegation to the Middle East, a trip that helped to shape US foreign policy in the region.
I drafted the Congressman’s State of the Union response, which also meant I got a sneak peek at the draft address and went to a briefing by the President’s press secretary. It was a surreal thing to be a part of.Lily Frencham
James, who graduated from UOW in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours, majoring in English Literature and Politics, took on a two-month internship in the office of then Majority Whip, Congressman James Clyburn. A Democrat, Congressman Clyburn was a respected figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. For James, listening to the Congressman discuss his role in the fight for Civil Rights, and his exposure to the issues that were dominating American politics and society was eye opening.
His firsthand experience of race relations and health care reform, both of which remain topics of contention in the US political sphere some eight years later, convinced the university student that he was on the right path with his studies. He was even smuggled on to the house floor during the vote on President Obama’s Health Care Reform.
“Listening to Congressman Clyburn and Chief Deputy Whip Congressman John Lewis talk about their experiences in the Civil Rights movement was something that stuck with me for a long time,” James says. “I had a front row seat to a lot of distinctly American systems: politics, Ivy League schools, race relations, lobbying, health care reform – and militant opposition to health care reform. It was a unique opportunity to experience American culture from within a senior congressional office.”
Both Lily and James had further brushes with the most famous resident of the White House during their time in Washington. While on a White House tour, Lily watched as President Obama departed on Marine One, the presidential helicopter, and ended up in a photo on the front page of the Huffington Post as a result. James, meanwhile, almost shook President Obama’s hand, a moment that was thwarted by a Congressman leaving his chair at the wrong time.
Thomas Curran spent the first two months of 2016 in Washington, DC and was also surprised by the amazing experiences available to the interns, both at work and outside the office. The former UOW student, who graduated with a combined degree in Arts and International Studies in July, was placed in the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Transport and Infrastructure. It was an area he was unfamiliar with at first but enabled him to experience a diverse range of portfolios.
“I didn’t know a lot about the area before I went to Washington, but when I got there I started working on the reorganisation of the Federal Aviation Administration Agency, which meant I was swamped. It was a lot of hands-on stuff and a lot more controversial than I expected,” says Thomas, whose work included railways, the Coast Guard, pipelines, and diluted bitumen, an area in which he is now well versed.
“But outside of the office, we went to New York and got to meet the Australian High Commissioner for the United Nations. We went to the Australian Embassy on Australia Day and met Julie Bishop and Joe Hockey.
“The highlight was attending a breakfast that President Obama spoke at. It was an incredible experience hearing him talk. I sat at a table next to Morgan Freeman. Throughout the two months, we had access to members of Congress and got to watch debates on the house floor.”
The chance to explore the social and political issues that dominate UOW politics is what Montana Byers is most looking forward to when she embarks on the internship this coming January. Montana, who is in the second year of a Bachelor of International Studies, majoring in International Relations, is hoping her placement will provide her with a greater understanding of the world around her.
“A lot of the topics I’m really interested in, such as mental health and gun laws, are in the news in the US right now,” she says. “I love learning more about people and more about what is going on in the world. I think it’s so difficult to make a difference without understanding the issues.”
The 19-year-old has been matched to and placed with Democratic Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who represents California’s 11th Congressional District. Congressman DeSaulnier, who has previously hosted another intern from UOW, has been a passionate advocate for gun reform, accessible education, and ending poverty and inequality.
With the US presidential elections dominating news coverage around the world, Montana will also be front row for a presidential changing of the guards. Whether that means Donald Trump or Secretary Hillary Clinton, who could be the first female president in US history, there is little doubt that it is a fascinating time to be heading to the heart of it all.
“I’m hoping I can attend the presidential inauguration,” Montana says. “To witness the swearing in of the first female president would be incredible, but regardless of who wins, it will be so amazing to experience it all on Capitol Hill.”
Montana’s passion for international relations comes from her parents – her father is involved in security – but she is unsure of what she wants to do when graduates from UOW. For other participants of the program, the internship has been instrumental in helping them on the path towards their career goals.
James, now a policy officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is currently living and working in Tonga. He says the program provided him with a sense of direction and gave him a valuable edge when applying for positions post graduation.
“I was very fortunate to be offered a position as Administration Assistant after my internship ended and I stayed in DC in the Congressman’s office for a year,” James says. “In the longer term, the experience I gained helped me get interviews for other positions. Internships and volunteering really makes you stand out in competitive recruitment. In fact, three out of the participants from the 2009 program now work at the Department of Foreign Affairs.”
Lily joined The Oaktree Foundation, a youth aid and development organisation, after graduating from UOW with a combined Bachelor of Law/Media (Journalism), a role that saw her lead a youth delegation to a United Nations summit in New York.
“I still get asked about the program in job interviews,” says Lily, who is now working as a media communications consultant in London. “On the back of the internship, being offered the chance to lead a youth delegation to the United Nations was incredible. It was my dream role and they were genuinely headhunting me.
“The program really reiterated to me how much I loved politics and social science. It was a great insight into what life in politics can feel like: electric, to be part of something so big and influential, but at the same time so frustrating because change comes in tiny increments, not sweeping movements. It taught me patience and humility, both of which are very necessary skills.”
Thomas, the 2016 representative, has been offered a position in a graduate program in the Federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and says his experience in Washington DC was influential in helping him to secure the role.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t have been accepted if it hadn’t been for my time in DC. Having the experience on that level, as well as references from current members of Congress, was really valuable,” says Thomas, who also spent a year in 2014 at the University of Strasbourg in France studying political science.
“I also probably wouldn’t have had the confidence and skills to pursue the role without having had access to so many mentors.”