By Melissa Gentry
This past fall, the Washington Semester Program, which is administered by the South Carolina Honors College, celebrated its 25th anniversary of sending qualified college students from around the state of South Carolina to our nation’s capital for a semester-long internship experience.
Erin Brown, a junior political science and economics major from Greensboro, N.C., and member of Student Government, is one of 13 students representing the University of South Carolina in Washington, D.C., this semester (and one of 17 students from across the state). Each semester offers new and exciting opportunities for students to learn about politics, but this spring, Brown is experiencing D.C. during a period of change with the transition from one president to the next and inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Brown moved to D.C. about a week before inauguration and started her experience with a memorable event – she and her fellow interns attended the South Carolina Inaugural Ball.
“The next day, on the day of the inauguration, I was at work, and my office hosted an open house for visitors to stop by for food and refreshments,” she said. “I didn’t anticipate being able to witness the inauguration first-hand, but I did have the chance to go out on the Washington Mall just in time to see President Trump’s swearing-in. The following day, I went to the Women’s March on Washington. It was fascinating to juxtapose those two events back-to-back.”
Brown said that the beginning of a presidential term is always a lively time in politics, but with the rarity of one party controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, the political climate now is exceptionally active.
“Living in D.C. now feels like being in a fishbowl, with the confirmation hearings and legislative debates that headline the daily news occurring within walking distance of where I am,” she said. “The entire nation and many parts of the world have their eyes focused on this city.”
And Brown has had her eyes focused on D.C. for quite a while. As a high school student in North Carolina, her interest in politics and constitutional history was sparked when she participated in “We the People,” a national program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education that features simulated congressional hearing competitions. When Brown and her classmates advanced to the national competition in Washington, D.C., she was intrigued by the opportunities the city would offer to further her study of American government.
“Participating in the South Carolina Washington Semester Program had been a dream of mine since I was a prospective student deciding which university to attend, and the program was one of the many attributes that attracted me to the University of South Carolina as an out-of-state student,” she said.
After a written application and interview, Brown’s dreams were realized when she was selected for the program and placed as an intern in the office of Congressman Tom Rice, a member of the South Carolina delegation.
“The program offers the invaluable opportunity for me to immerse myself in the political culture of Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I knew that working in a full-time internship in D.C. would be a great way for me to supplement the academic and extracurricular experiences I had gained at USC, and I was very excited for the chance to encounter first-hand the political world I had studied in the classroom and observed on the news for years.”
Brown attributes her participation in Student Government to helping prepare for her current role in D.C. Over the last two years, she served as chief of staff for the student body vice president, vice chair of the Student Senate Academics Committee and delegation chair for the College of Arts and Sciences senators.
“One of the things I loved most about my involvement in Student Government was being surrounded by highly-motivated students who strive to better our Carolina community,” she said. “Similarly, much of the work of the congressional offices revolves around serving and improving the lives of constituents, and I’m surrounded by people both in the Washington Semester Program and outside of it who are actively pursuing positive change in the spirit of public service. Student Government developed my abilities to collaborate with others and to appreciate the behind-the-scenes work that goes into maintaining a productive team, and I have found these to be essential during my internship on the Hill.”
Brown’s daily work in Congressman Rice’s office involves interacting with constituents from his district, including answering phone calls from constituents wanting to express their opinions on federal issues or seeking assistance from the office. She also coordinates tours for those planning to visit D.C. and assists the legislative staff with projects as needed.
“After just a few weeks at my internship, I already feel like I’m learning a lot about the political process and environment in D.C.,” she said. “I’ve also spent some time learning how to navigate the underground tunnels connecting the congressional office buildings to the Capitol building, which is quite a task!”
In addition to the full-time internship, Washington Semester Program students take two courses. One is politically-minded, focusing on current D.C. issues, and the other is a theater appreciation class, which includes scheduled class trips to see productions at different theaters around the city. The students also attend five seminars during the semester led by Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and USC professor. Altogether, the program allows students to earn 15 credit hours.
Outside of work and classes, the students live together in a townhome located a few blocks away from the Supreme Court building.
“Walking past the Supreme Court, the Capitol building and the Library of Congress every day to and from work is still an awe-inspiring and surreal experience,” Brown said.
With work every weekday and class twice a week, Brown says her free time is limited, but she and the other students in the program are determined to make the most of their time in D.C.
“There’s no shortage of fun ways to spend time in D.C.,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed visiting the Smithsonian museums, walking to the monuments on the National Mall and exploring different parts of the city. My favorite thing I’ve had the opportunity to do so far has been sitting in on the oral arguments of Supreme Court cases.”
Brown says she thinks this experience in Washington, D.C., will strengthen her ability to appreciate the diversity of thought that makes up our political system.
“Living and learning in D.C. for the semester will allow me the opportunity to witness the democratic process and all it entails: from the advocacy of causes in the streets of the city to the crafting of legislation in the congressional offices to the formally structured voting in the galleries of the Capitol,” she said. “I hope that being engaged in this process will help me grow as both a student and a citizen, as I’m exposed to a variety of cultural and political perspectives.”
Brown plans to graduate in May 2018, but after that, she’s keeping an open mind about her long-term career goals.
“While my immediate aspiration is to go to law school, I look forward to the Washington Semester Program providing me the opportunity to increase my exposure to potential career options, particularly in the legal, judicial and policymaking fields,” she said.
The skills that Brown has gained as a student leader both on campus (in Student Government as well as serving as a resident mentor in the Carolina Women’s Community and tutoring kids at a local community center in Columbia) and through the Washington Semester Program, along with her 4.0 GPA, are preparing her to be successful after graduation.
“I think my experience as a student leader will empower me to pursue a career where I can apply my skills in leadership and teamwork,” she said. “I am optimistic that my readiness to take initiative in my academic and professional environments will help me advance in my career field, while I continue to prioritize the value of collaborative progress toward service-oriented goals in the workplace.”