Considering a Career in Politics?

One of Oberlin's Oldest Winter-Term Projects Helps Students Mold Their Career Aspirations

by Susanna Henigan '99

Even the staunchest political cynic would get excited talking to juniors Selena Hopkins, from Fairbanks, Alaska, and Yumi Sawai, from Tokyo, Japan. Listening to them relate stories about their Congressional internships this January, it's impossible not to share some of their excitement.

"I felt like I was really in the right place," says Hopkins, who worked for Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. "It was cool just to be in Georgetown at night and wonder what everyone is thinking."

Yumi Sawai and Selena Hopkins Sawai mirrors her sentiment. "I felt like I came at a very interesting time," she says. Neither Hopkins or Sawai, who worked with California Senator Dianne Feinstein, had been to Washington before, making January a month of many firsts for both students.

Sawai and Hopkins weren't the only Oberlin students in Washington this January. Seventeen students were placed as interns in Congressional offices through a long-running program, the Oberlin Congressional Internship Program, administered by the politics department.

Politics professor and chair Ben Schiff says the program is popular because students like to be immersed in national politics. "Imbibing the atmosphere is very interesting for them," he says, adding that many winter-term assignments lead to summer and even post-graduation employment.

Hopkins, like many participants in the program, worked previously in politics and plans to use this internship to build a career in politics. "I might like to do campaign work, or possibly run for public office," she says.

Sawai has a different outlook. Being a newcomer to political work, she saw the job as an experiment. "I wanted to see if it was something I'm interested in doing," she says.

During the month Sawai realized she doesn't want a career directly involved in politics. "I'm not interested in working in government, I don't think, but working with government, possibly with the United Nations or something like that," she says.

While their day-to-day duties gave Hopkins and Sawai a taste of the work politicians and their staffs do, President Clinton's trial added a historic feeling to the month and generated much work for both interns.

"It was hectic," Sawai says. "Every time something happened on TV we'd get more e-mails and phone calls."

Sawai says each of the legislative aides in Feinstein's office had small televisions tuned to C-SPAN on their desks. "They pretty much watched it all day. It was pretty tense."

Hopkins and Sawai each spent a day observing the Senate as it deliberated. "It was exciting to be able to see it live and not on TV," Sawai says.

Besides dealing with constituents and observing Capitol Hill events, both students completed research projects. Sawai researched the impact of changes in the Japanese economy on the U.S., particularly on California. Sawai designed the project to fit her interest in international relations with a focus on Asia. She summarized her research in a short memo for the senator.

Hopkins' project, drafting a thank-you speech Senator Kennedy delivered to a meeting of the National Conference of Mayors, which had recognized him for his support of the arts, also fit her interests - arts and arts education.