Students gain legislative experience

Students interning at the Legislature do more than just fetch coffee and copies.

by Alex Amend

For most students, an internship is essential in laying a foundation for a career. And for those who vote, follow politics or are just interested, interning at the Legislature might be a perfect fit.

Political science junior Amy Knutson is interning for her second legislative session, this year under Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley.

“I think everyone should be required to do it, if just for one day, so people could see how things really work,” she said of working in the state’s lawmaking body. “People would be a lot happier if they understood.”

Interning at the Capitol isn’t limited to photocopying and coffee runs.

“We make sure they have an experience that matches up with their academic goals,” said Julia Miller, who is in charge of placing interns in the House. “We match candidates and representatives with similar interests to ensure a good working relationship.”

Miller said that interns’ experiences vary but the common workload consists of research, bill tracking, committee observation and handling concerns from constituents – which at times can be trying.

“We give them some of our worst constituents to deal with,” joked Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis.

Interns at the Senate receive a modest stipend and both chambers offer school credit.

Fifth-year economics and psychology student Julia Wells is Kahn’s intern. As part of her work, she is co-authoring an editorial with the University-area representative on proposed light pollution legislation.

Wells said she’s gained valuable research skills in her bill work, and some of her research assisted directly in the drafting of a bill supporting industrial hemp.

“I have a much better idea of the legislative process,” she said. “I know what occurs in the gap between an idea and an actual bill.”

Beyond the paperwork and research, Knutson and Wells both said they enjoy watching and learning how the personalities of the representatives function in and around the Capitol.

“It’s fun to meet all the reps and then see how they react to different bills, especially when they are controversial,” Wells said.

“Getting to know public officials is enlightening too,” Knutson said. “You realize they are not superheroes, just normal people.”

Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, liked Wells’ work so much that he asked her to shadow him for a day.

“Sviggum and Kahn are like opposites,” she laughed. “He just wants me to see both sides.”

In regard to their future careers, Wells and Knutson said the experience is truly beneficial.

Wells said understanding the processes of the Legislature is encouraging her to study for a master’s degree in public policy.

“It has helped a lot with other nonprofit organizations I work with and it has shown me other ways to get involved in the policy process,” she said.

Knutson, who is considering law school, said working for lawyers and seeing their success in managing jobs, family and government is inspiring.

“I really think this experience has enabled me to know that I can be effective in government without being elected,” she said.