Despite pandemic, NWU students thrive at Capitol Hill Internship Program

“The world really is your oyster,” says Nebraska Wesleyan University junior Amanda Schultz. “If you want to do something, you can make it happen.”

That is the mantra for four NWU students who are spending their spring semester participating in the Capitol Hill Internship Program (CHIP). They are among the first students to participate in an out-of-state program during the pandemic.

“I originally planned to participate in CHIP last fall but deferred to the spring with the hope that COVID-19 would be over by now. I was wrong on that one,” said senior Carter Smith, a business administration major from Shelby, Neb. “I knew it was now or never.”

Smith is an intern for United States Senator Deb Fischer. He spends his days at the Russel Senate Office Building adjacent to the U.S. Capitol. Smith answers phone calls and categorizes mail from constituents, researches legislative topics such as climate change and tax obligations, delivers papers to the Senate cloak rooms and greets visitors attending meetings in the office. Fischer’s office allows a limited number of people to work in person each day, so his time is split between the office and the apartment where CHIP students live.

Chandler Ashburn, a junior political science and communication studies major from Papillion, Neb., is interning at the U.S. Department of State in the African Affairs Bureau with the Office of Sudan and South Sudan.

“The largest sacrifice I have had to make due to COVID is attend my internship virtually,” she said.

Ashburn attends virtual meetings, sends emails, and answers phone calls from constituents and representatives. Even online, the experience has allowed her to network with people across the globe and gain valuable professional experience.

Amanda Schultz found herself in a similar situation.

“As we all have discovered, life happens, and plans get changed, especially when a global pandemic comes along,” she said.

Schultz, a junior, biology major from Deshler, Neb., is focusing on environmental studies. She originally planned to apply for CHIP during her senior year at NWU. However, after study abroad experiences were paused, she decided to speed up her timeline.

“Being adaptable and having to change my plans last-minute to be here now — with a recent change in the presidential administration and in the midst of a pandemic — has been so exciting,” she said. “We are up close to where big things are happening.”

Schultz’s internship with the Sierra Club has allowed her to learn how the Washington, D.C. chapter functions. As part of the chapter’s clean water committee, Schultz observes chapter comments on proposed remediation by the National Parks Service, researches the historic and current environment health — specifically the Anacostia River that runs through the Washington, D.C. area, and writes about ecosystem services specific to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, which is scheduled to be demolished in 2022. The future of the land is yet to be decided.

Senior Peyton Renard is finishing his NWU career with an internship at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.  The history and political science double major from Lincoln, Neb., assists with various projects including the Race and Economic Empowerment Grant and Women in Labor Leadership (WILL) Empowerment Project. He attends staff meetings, conducts research through the Library of Congress and tracks registrations for upcoming seminars and events.

The pandemic has not taken away a critical component of CHIP: the Washington Experience course, which gives students the opportunity to explore the area. So far the group has visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the American Visionary Arts Museum, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Arlington National Cemetery.

Their trip around Arlington is one that Schultz said she will never forget. Kris Polly, president and CEO of Water Strategies, is an instructor for one of the CHIP classes.

“He has a restored WWII jeep, and took us on a ride through Arlington. Not only was it amazing learning the history behind the jeep, but he shared with us some history of the area,” she said. “It was a fantastic afternoon, and I was grateful for this experience.”

COVID-19 may have impacted how CHIP functioned this spring, but it did not affect its impact on NWU students.

“My future and career have forever been changed due to the learning I experienced while here at CHIP,” said Ashburn.