For many college students summer means relaxation and freedom from the worries of papers, reading and exams. But for thirty-seven years summer has been very different for the Johnnies and Bennies who've participated in the political science department's annual Washington DC Summer Study Program. There they live and work, interning at government, for-profit and not-for-profit offices. And for each student the experience is transformative.
Many of the students are political science majors, but the program also attracts students from a diversity of backgrounds, including economics, Hispanic studies, physics, and a host of other majors.
As one of the most expensive cities in the country, Washington presents special challenges, particularly since most of these internships are unpaid. As a result, many students choose to incur debt in the hopes that the professional development will pay off in the long term. Despite that cost, however, the program has grown considerably in the past decade, thanks to many generous alumni who have helped to provide opportunities to qualified students who otherwise would not be able to afford the program.
This experiential learning program is rooted in community. During the year prior to the internships the students prepare together, as a group. Once in Washington they live in two row houses a stone's throw from the Supreme Court building, in a neighborhood where they're surrounded by interns from around the world. But most important of all, the students are welcomed by a tight-knit community of Johnnies and Bennies living and working in the District. It is in fact one of our largest and most active alumni groups outside of Minnesota.
In a city where connections are currency, these alumni give our students two legs up on the competition. They participate in the seminars organized by the program directors. They take students out to lunch. They discuss with them their career and personal goals; and they connect them with other successful people. This pass-it-forward mentality from alumni to students is part of what keeps the Johnnie-Bennie network thriving in the District.
Saint John's senior Robin Swingley believes this is the greatest advantage of the program. Swingley was a 2015 intern at Jubilee USA, a faith-based advocacy organization led by Johnnie Eric LeCompte '99. Swingley explains, "Although I am not sure what I want to do after graduation, there is a Johnnie working on the cutting edge of every field I'm interested in. The opportunity to sit down with those people has opened my eyes to the opportunities available to me."
The summer of 2015 has included a group visit to the White House to meet with President Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough '92. The alumni who have welcomed our students this summer are as diverse politically as they are professionally. They include several former guest lecturers in the McCarthy Center, and recent graduates just beginning their professional journeys. With an often contentious political landscape as a backdrop, students quickly realize that regardless of one's ideology or political party, it's not the D or the R that's important. It's the CSB/SJU behind the names that brings everyone together.
Typically, a few universities have held a grip on jobs in the nation's hyper-competitive capital. However, thanks to generous and selfless alumni, our alumni and students are out-competing, and ultimately changing the composition of Washington's leadership positions. Mix the Johnnie-Bennie network with a little bit of Midwestern charm and work ethic, and you have a bona-fide recipe for success.
[Matt Lindstrom '92 is the Edward Henry Professor of political science and co-director of the Washington, DC Summer Program; and Alex Wald is a senior at Saint John's University and a 2015 participant in the DC program. In 2015-16 he is serving as the president of the Student Senate at Saint John's University.]