Front-row seat at Capitol for interns

Internship course offers college credit for a variety of internships.

by Kevin Beckman

Sophomore political science major Annie Pottorff wanted to see how change happens in Minnesota.
Now, through a University of Minnesota political science internship program, Pottorff has a front-row seat for seeing how citizens, lobbyists and corporations help influence the state’s legislative process.
Through the program, Pottorff — who will work in the office of Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, this semester — will receive college credit for interning at the state capitol, all while witnessing how Minnesota’s laws and policies are shaped. 
“Right now it’s daunting … [but] I’ll have such a great understanding from this internship about how the lawmaking process works itself,” Pottorff said. She also hopes to eventually work with environmental policy. “I’ll definitely be able to expand what I’m learning in this internship into law school.”
Paul Soper, internship director for the political science department and the course’s instructor, said students can intern with the Minnesota House of Representatives, Senate or Gov. Mark Dayton’s office, as well as political campaigns, nonprofit organizations and policy advocacy groups. Students apply to their desired internships first and, once accepted, can apply to receive college credit for their work. 
Scott Magnuson, who has administered Minnesota’s Senate College Internship Program since 1980, said this year the program will take in about 70 students — a little more than half of whom hail from the University of Minnesota. 
Assistant Sergeant Andrew Olson, who manages the House internship program, said the House takes in fewer interns — between 20 and 30. 
At the state capitol, interns’ work is primarily clerical — they answer phones, respond to emails and answer questions from constituents on behalf of legislators, Soper said.
They also help conduct research on specific policy issues, take notes for legislators during committee meetings and sometimes take bills to other legislative offices to collect signatures from lawmakers, he said.
Magnuson said the internship program is helpful to lawmakers, many of whom often do not have enough staff to help during the legislative session.
He said the program also benefits students, who get a “front-row seat” to the internal workings of a legislator’s office. 
Nicole Reineke, now a legislative assistant with the House Republican Caucus, took Soper’s course as a sophomore to receive credit for an internship with Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, during the 2014 session. 
Reineke said she spent about 18 hours a week at the Capitol, writing letters, answering phones and taking notes at committee meetings. 
Soper said the internship program also allows students to get a sense of the legislative process. 
Interns learn how legislation is crafted, how support for bills is built and how the legislative body generally operates, he said.
For Reineke, the internship was an important factor when she was hired as a legislative assistant. 
“I learned so much more than I would have ever learned in a classroom,” she said. 
Students in the program journal about connections between their day-to-day observations on the hill and class readings on political theory.
“If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about what I was doing.” Reineke said. 
Magnuson said the real-world experience the internship offers outweighs what’s learned in the classroom. 
“You can attend all the courses, all the discussions with your classmates, watch all the political programs,” he said. “But there’s nothing like being able to experience the process firsthand and form your own assessment.”