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D.C. program numbers declining

Kathleen McDonnell | Saturday, October 28, 2006

Of the 53 percent of Notre Dame students who participate in an international study program, most make plans to view Incan ruins, Michelangelo’s masterpieces and Egyptian pyramids.

For just a small number of students studying “abroad,” the White House tops the sightseeing list.

Six students are studying this fall in Washington, D.C. as part of the Office of International Studies’ only domestic program. The program’s current capacity is 15 students, but lack of interest means sending six this fall and 13 this spring.

Liz LaFortune, academic coordinator of the Washington Program, attributed some of the dwindling interest to confusion – a domestic program is not “abroad” in the traditional sense – and to the physical movements of the office in the last few years.

LaFortune named another factor, however, as a more influential deterrent from spending a semester in Washington: a strong football season.

“We call it the ‘Charlie Weis effect,'” LaFortune said. “The Office of International Studies has seen a decrease in fall applications across the board.”

As far as football is concerned, the program is unique because students can squeeze in trips to South Bend – junior Dan O’Connell said he returned to campus twice during his stay in the nation’s capital last spring. Students studying overseas likely would not have the same opportunity.

With studying abroad nearly synonymous with traveling across the continent, the Washington Program offers students a very different experience.

“I did feel like I was missing out on something compared to an international program, since I was still in the [United States],” senior and Washington Program alumnus Joe Dosch said. “However, the internship opportunities in D.C. can’t be matched by any of the study abroad programs, so for me that outweighed the benefits of going abroad.”

O’Connell was one of three students who paired the Washington Program sophomore year with a parliamentary internship in the London program during junior year. This option allows students to “spend a semester right in the heart of the political action,” as O’Connell put it, and to spend another overseas where cultural differences are acute.

The 20-25 hour-a-week internships are the cornerstone of the Washington program, which is unique in offering each student a chance for real work experience, LaFortune said. While language and cultural immersion characterize the experiences of many students overseas, the Washington program is focused on what one student deemed a “real-life immersion,” LaFortune said.

“The program offers a unique opportunity to live, learn and work in the nation’s capital,” she said. “Students combine coursework with public policy visits and with internship experiences.”

Once accepted to the program, the coordinators help students apply for eight to 10 internships. The experience of preparing a resume, interviewing and then working four days a week among the nation’s leaders is a huge advantage for students in the job search, LaFortune said. There may be more preparatory work for this program than others in this regard, she said, but the lack of language barrier cuts down on the prerequisites.

Students last year had opportunities to intern with senators, representatives, Meet the Press, the United Nations Information Center and the Democratic National Committee, among others.

O’Connell interned with Senator Chris Dodd and felt the experience was invaluable.

“It’s a definite advantage to essentially live the life of a Congressional staffer before going into the job market,” he said. “It gives you real world experience while you’re still in college, which is a great benefit when I’m looking for a job after.”

In an attempt to increase applications for 2007, LaFortune said the program has made a strong effort this year to reconnect with academic departments and to aggressively recruit with advertisements. She emphasized close work with teachers of entry-level political science courses, especially since the program encourages those of all majors to apply and a wide array of students take the entry-level courses.

While applications may be down, participant enthusiasm is certainly not diminished.

“For people who have even a slight interest in politics, it’s a great experience, especially when you add classes with professors who come directly out of the fields in which they teach,” O’Connell said. “I’d encourage anyone who is thinking about it to go.”