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Students get a “capital” experience in Washington Semester

For 22 years, Virginia Tech students of all majors have experienced how policy and government connect to their chosen fields though the School of Public and International Affairs’ Washington Semester program.

Each semester, 10 to 20 students head to Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region to take part in the immersive work/study 11-week program tackling real-world policy issues. They complete internships with government agencies, world-leading think-tanks, and international organizations while also taking related classes, professional development seminars, and field trips, and living in the nation’s capital, surrounded by a small, supportive group of fellow Hokies.

Based on their interests, students are placed with employers ranging from federal and local government agencies to international non-governmental and relief organizations. Recent placements include the U.S. Senate, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, Catholic Charities, USA, the American Red Cross International Division, Human Rights Watch, the City of Alexandria, and Arlington County.

Senior Avalon Roche, a double-major in public and urban affairs and political science from Kaiserslautern, Germany, works for Arlington County’s Economic Development office, assisting in economic development projects, reviewing economic policies, and helping the county retain businesses.

“This internship provides great insight into the inner workings of a local government,” she said. “I hope to run for public office one day and believe public officials should have an understanding of how government works from the local level. The Washington Semester provides great opportunities to speak with professionals in the public policy field and explore potential careers.”

Operated today by the School of Public and International Affairs within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts, the Washington Semester is founded and led by core faculty from both colleges.

“What sets Virginia Tech’s Washington Semester program apart from other Washington internship programs is the emphasis on combining theory with practice,” said Andrea Morris, Washington Semester program director. “Students get an intimate grasp of policy and governance that enables them to be strong contributors and leaders in their communities and chosen fields.”

Jaimy Alex, the program’s internship coordinator, noted that Virginia Tech students are also in high demand from employers.

“It’s gratifying that employers reach out year after year asking for student interns from Virginia Tech,” Alex said. “That proves how capable our students are and how well they represent us. We are very proud of them.”

The Washington Semester offers students six- and 12-credit options, along with the chance to align their interests and professional goals with the broader issues of management and policy. All Virginia Tech students who have completed over 60 hours of credit are eligible to apply.

Kallie Peurifoy, a senior from Charleston, South Carolina, majoring in Environmental Science, works in the EPA’s Office of Compliance Enforcement Targeting and Data Division.

“At the EPA, my main project is helping implement the eRule, which is the shifting from paper submissions to electronic submissions for facility data,” she said. “I’m also researching the health of drinking water in communities that have elevated levels of fluorinated organic chemicals known as PFAS and PFOAs, and helping develop the ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) website.”

She added, “So far, the highlight of my Washington Semester has been visiting the Department of State and participating in a mock diplomatic scenario. I have really enjoyed being able to live in the National Capital Region and explore everything D.C. has to offer.”

John Irwin, a senior in the Public and Urban Affairs program from Richmond, Virginia, is interning with Fairfax County’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services in the Wastewater Planning and Monitoring Division.

“This is getting me first-hand experience in public policy,” he said. “Upon finishing this, I hope to go into public policy in the public sector. It’s a great opportunity for me to apply what I’ve learned in the classroom and learn even more.”

Irwin said he enjoys how the program unites students from different majors and colleges to share a common experience.

“I like that the program has a component where we get to be with other Virginia Tech students,” Irwin said. “Though we’re all in mostly different offices across the NCR, we get together to compare experiences. It’s a great asset to the program.”

Expanding access to Washington Semester opportunities for students is a fundraising goal of the college, noted SPIA Director Anne Khademian.

“We’d like every student with an interest to be able to have the Washington Semester experience,” Khademian said. “A student’s Washington Semester experience is a gift that lasts a lifetime. It provides growth for students that they will repay through civic service and leadership.”

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