With universities now emphasizing experiential learning, the 40-plus legislatures that hire student interns face increased competition for them. In response, many have incorporated career development into a legislative internship program that benefits both student and legislature. Students learn firsthand about the legislature and gain real-world work experience. Legislative offices gain additional staff, and the institution itself benefits from a group of young adults who gain an appreciation for the legislature, state government, and public policy—and who might choose this path as a career.
Common characteristics of legislative internship programs that enjoy positive feedback and a large applicant pool include an institutional commitment to the program’s success, a focus on career development, and an emphasis on participation in the legislative process. Following are some tips for giving the most to—and getting the most from—legislative interns.
Be a Champion. Interns need a champion. Whether or not the program exists in statute, the legislature needs to be dedicated to making it work. An institutional commitment can mean employing an administrator to serve as a resource to students and offices, supervise the academic program, and coordinate placements meaningful to an intern’s professional development.
Tennessee’s Legislative Internship Program was established in 1972 and is consistently supported by leadership as both an education for students and a way to nurture potential state leaders.
Connecticut’s program, codified in state law in 1969 and designed as a mentoring program, is administered by the bipartisan Internship Committee, composed of senators and representatives. With members communicating to their caucuses the need for the program and what participation entails, requests from legislators for interns are increasing.
Although the Kansas Legislative Internship Program is not in statute, the Legislature made a formal commitment to oversee the program and clarified members’ responsibilities toward their interns: to ensure they do substantive work, are treated professionally and observe all parts of the process. And since there are always new legislators, there’s a need for continual education about the role of interns.
The Kentucky Legislative Research Commission (LRC) internship program has thrived by LRC custom since 1970. Legislators support the program by serving as lecturers in semi-weekly intern seminars.
Prepare Interns for the Workplace. Because this is the first formal work experience for many, interns benefit from an orientation that teaches them about the legislature, workplace etiquette, and how to maneuver through the challenges of the legislative environment.
Tennessee’s program begins with a weeklong orientation addressing personnel topics and best practices to prepare students for the rigors of the session. Networking is also a focus. Students are encouraged to get to know their peers, and during the session, they meet weekly with leaders from across state government, who discuss their roles and career paths.
Connecticut interns participate in a two-day orientation prior to session and have supplementary training on research and constituent management software. The program’s director also focuses on professional development with workshops on grammar, resume writing and interview skills.
Kansas and Kentucky also hold orientations, which are tweaked regularly—to provide additional software training, for example—in response to participant feedback or legislator requests.
Encourage Participation in the Process. Interns should be actively engaged in the legislative process. They can perform many of the duties of a legislative aide, such as constituent work and policy research. They also benefit from exposure to both legislators and various stakeholders—such as the executive branch, state agencies and lobbyists—to better understand state government.
Connecticut’s program aims to educate future leaders and inspire them to support good policy and good government. Interns are engaged in all facets of the process from either a committee or legislative office. They also participate in a mock session. Interns in both Connecticut and Tennessee complete bill tracking projects, during which they observe the legislative process as they evaluate the actions and discussion in committee meetings and floor sessions.
In Kentucky, students experience legislative work firsthand as LRC staff so they can envision what a career might be like. Similarly, Tennessee’s program is geared toward showcasing the opportunities of a career in state government. Such recruitment makes sense as baby boomers, who will take their institutional knowledge with them, near retirement.
Don’t Forget the “Student” Part of “Student Intern.” Beyond the valuable practical component of working alongside legislators and staff, interns also need to reflect on their experience through coursework that complements what happens in the statehouse.
The Kansas internship requires a policy paper. The director of one of its university partners views the experience as an important part of a liberal arts education and notes that past interns understand government and policy at a far more profound level than their peers.
Interns in Kentucky attend courses on the legislative process and state government. Legislators serve as subject experts; for example, the appropriation and revenue committee chairs discuss the budget process. Throughout the session, each student researches an assigned topic and tracks debate and discussion. Each also submits a weekly journal to the program coordinator.
In Connecticut, interns complete several projects and reflection papers. They also have access to shadowing opportunities and field trips highlighting policy in action (e.g., programming at correctional facilities) and areas of interest like the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Tennessee interns complete a long-term project in addition to their office assignments. Because career development is a focus, the coordinator provides regular feedback to universities about whether students need additional writing instruction or preparation for interviews.
Regardless of how formal the academic programming, a successful experience produces a graduate who understands the concepts and practical applications of governing, legislating and the value of representative democracy. Implemented with institutional support, the legislative internship is an opportunity to cultivate an appreciation of the legislature, and inspire and prepare the legislature’s next generation.