Washington Center: Creating leaders for 25 years
years, the nation's capital has been a learning lab for Frogs who landed
internships through The Washington Center, a nonprofit group that provides
an academic framework for students working a semester inside the Beltway.
This is a
story about the power of one semester.
It is a tale
with more than 350 chapters, each written by a different TCU student who
took a chance and left the campus for four months to go exploring in the
began in fall 1978. In Washington terms, that's several well-publicized
scandals, thousands of diplomatic decisions, millions of tourists, 13
elections and five presidents ago.
But for Brad
Kiley ‘83, it was a starting point -- the semester that set his career in
politics in motion and would lead him to become the business manager for
the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Besze '91 and Todd Wallace '91, Washington was the venue where they would
meet as interns, become friends, fall in love and later marry.
alum of TCU's Washington semester can share a story about changed lives.
still calls it her "semester of personal revolution." And it
began on Day One. She walked in the door of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's
Washington bureau ready to make introductions, learn her way around and
acclimate to her new position. Instead, she got a real taste of what her
semester would be like.
didn't give her an office tour or take her to lunch. He sent her on assignment
to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Her mission: Find out whether
any of the American hostages making their way home from Kuwait that day
were from Texas and write about their release. Her lesson: A career in
journalism must be driven both by passion and ingenuity.
never lived in the Beltway, but when her boss told her to rent a car,
drive to the airport and file the story, that's what she did. Armed with
hand-typed press credentials, confusing directions, keys to a rental car
and more adrenaline than she could measure, she raced to the airport,
parked the car, sprinted to a press conference, spent the day wrapped
up in the chaos of the event, filed her story by pay phone and finally
searched the parking lot for 30 minutes for the car she had abandoned
in haste hours earlier. Luckily, the license plate number was on her key,
and she went home after midnight exhausted but accomplished.
day, my story was FedEx'ed to the bureau from Fort Worth," she recalls.
"That's when it hit me, even more than it had the night before -- I was
in for the experience of a lifetime."
to feel so alive has forever lured philosophers, businessmen, activists
and big-picture dreamers to the nation's capital, each seeking inspiration
for public or private revolutions of their own. So it was no surprise
when three TCU political science professors returned from a conference
near the Capitol in 1977 toting a yellow legal pad filled with ideas for
a program that would revolutionize the educational experience of hundreds
of TCU's brightest students.
Donald Jackson and colleagues V.C. Brewer and Gene Alpert envisioned a
partnership with The Washington Center, a D.C.-based educational program
that blended internships with academics. The living-classroom experience
of working in America's most power city added exponentially to the appeal.
who also helped establish TCU's London Centre in 1998, says that long
before someone came to TCU to discuss what was then called The Washington
Center for Learning Alternatives, he knew he wanted students to "escape
and explore beyond the borders of the campus." Alpert adds that people
who have lived in Washington know that the experiences there are unlike
those anywhere else in the world. "And any of us who have spent any time
with students," he says, "know what an amazing chance we can offer when
we give them an opportunity to step outside the classroom and see the
world around them with new eyes."
this vision into reality was not easy. Alpert, Jackson and others spent
weeks organizing curriculum requirements and recruiting students, and
in fall 1978 nine undergraduates left familiar Fort Worth for the capital.
In the years since, nearly 350 students have followed, and another 250
have participated in the affiliated Republican and Democratic National
of the students, this semester is the first time in their lives that they
are entirely independent," says Alpert, who left TCU to head The Washington
Center in 1992. "Washington is a city that is in many ways run by interns
and young professionals, and our students often get an opportunity to
make a significant contribution in their jobs."
students, all political science majors, shared apartments at Rhode Island
Avenue and 14th Street. The living quarters weren't ideal, but they were
comfortable and located in the heart of the District.
husband-to-be Wallace had never met before they went to Washington in
the fall of 1990. TCU's intern group took the Metro out to dinner one
night, and Wallace remarked that it was a shame all the female interns
a thought in my head, I blurted out, ‘I don't.' It's a white lie I will
never regret," Susan says from the couple's home in Highland Ranch, Colo.
"Washington is where we met and fell in love. It is the most romantic
place in the world I can think of to fall in love." She says she and Todd
will forever be grateful for the experiences of that semester. "Both of
us will tell you, our semester there holds a dear, dear place in our hearts.
Our entire experience is as vivid today as it was then."
saw everything there was to see in the city. They shared all the excitement
of their work. They wrinkled their noses as they coped with the curry
powder that wafted through the apartment complex. They took weekend trips
to surrounding cities. They marveled at the glow of the national Christmas
tree, and they still get goosebumps when they remember singing Christmas
carols from the rotunda of a museum on the Mall.
have been an adult when I went away to college at TCU, but I truly grew
up in Washington," Besze says. "Todd and I cannot wait to take our son
there and show him all of the places we love."
the Washington internships has spread across campus through the years,
with interest on the rise recently. Valerie Martinez-Ebers, a professor
of political science and TCU's current Washington Center coordinator,
cites word-of-mouth enthusiasm and an increased awareness of the value
of an internship.
15 juniors and seniors participate each fall. Students from any discipline
may apply. Those selected must maintain a 3.0 grade average. Unlike other
schools that work with The Washington Center, TCU selects students for
the program a year before they leave Fort Worth. This gives them time
to meet past interns, prepare submission materials and learn from group
discussions on issues such as internship placements.
our students to be prepared for their internships, and we want them to
get to know each other," Martinez-Ebers says.
selection process and 25-year association with The Washington Center make
its class one of the most prepared and cohesive groups each year. "TCU
students make an impact in Washington every fall, no question," Alpert
says, adding that he has seen how students from other universities admire
both the connectivity and professionalism displayed by TCU's interns.
students reach Washington, the work begins in earnest. In addition to
maintaining a full-time internship, everyone must attend one weekly class,
with topics ranging from "Peace Studies" to "The History of the Women's
Movement in America." The Washington Center coordinates seminars presented
by some of the city's most influential people. The students also must
do a comprehensive final project, complete with work samples and regular
Washington Center required a journal, Alpert had the students submit a
journal entry every week. "Reading what the students wrote gave me an
opportunity to share in the discoveries that were taking place for each
of them. Over and over I read the words, ‘I don't think I will be the
same after this semester.' There's something so valuable in giving students
a chance to learn by asking questions and by doing rather than learn by
telling them what we think is important."
of recent final projects indicates how distinct one experience is from
the next. At the same time, the journal entries blur the line between
last-minute required generalities and true coming-of-age revelations.
Whether intentionally or not, the undergraduates-becoming-professionals
chorus a sort of confused certainty. In the words of one, "I know for
a fact I learned a lot. I'm just not sure yet what I learned."
who sold the first car he ever owned outright to pay for his trip to Washington,
interned with Interpol. The experiences he had outside the office are
the ones he cherishes the most. "When I spent Veteran's Day at the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier, my heart swelled with such patriotism and pride,"
says the Marine Corps reservist. His time in Washington was also important
because it brought to life many of the stories his father, a Secret Service
agent, had shared with him.
in the world
have an opportunity to breathe life into their history and civics lessons
by immersing themselves in America's heritage, some of it as it is being
made. Protests are seen first-hand in Lafayette Park. The White House
is discussed not only for its historic importance, but in terms of the
policies being developed there on any given day.
dictated by whether Congress is in session. Saturday afternoon excursions
become tours of the Smithsonian. Road trips involve subways and trains.
Dinner parties and receptions are galas and fund-raisers. Translation:
free food, potentially famous people and networking opportunities.
sensory overload. Alpert describes the District as 69 square miles surrounded
is a place where students can work hand-in-hand with the policy makers
who are shaping our republic," he explains. "It's a place where the newscasters
that students watch on the evening news become teachers."
encouraged to travel as many learning paths as possible, and they often
make significant contributions in the workplace. "We tend not to have
trouble placing our students," Martinez-Ebers says. "We even have some
congressmen or government agencies that have called us or The Washington
Center headquarters requesting future students."
comes to placement, there are no limits. TCU students have worked in every
branch of the federal government -- congressional offices, the White House,
the judiciary, agencies, nonprofit organizations, political action committees,
news groups, even the coroner's office.
a little bit of everything in Washington," notes political science professor
Jim Riddlesperger, a former internship coordinator. "It's a place where
students can feel free to explore a different career interest and expand
their understanding of culture, history, politics and international relations,
all without leaving the United States."
'01 worked for Rep. Kay Granger during her semester in Washington. Now
a law school student at Texas Tech, Reasoner says the internship helped
her establish a network of professional and personal relationships she
will carry into her career.
"I had such
a positive, wonderful and memorable experience, it encouraged me to return
to Washington for another internship this past summer," she says. "Working
on the Hill that semester was a remarkable opportunity to make a difference
for our constituents in Texas. As someone who was born and raised in Texas,
that was really special."
Karen Luong grew up in Arlington. Until August she had never lived anywhere
else. Now she can say that she has lived in a high-rise apartment building
in Arlington, Va., too. As a member of the most recent class of Horned
Frogs in Washington, Luong isn't sure how to describe the four months
she spent at Civicus, a nonprofit organization that champions groups dedicated
to civic participation worldwide. She will say that the experience was
one of total independence.
had no idea what to expect. I packed my bags and showed up at the apartment
all by myself," she says. "Living in Washington is the first time in my
life I have lived away from my family. It was an adjustment, but one I
needed to prove I could do. I came to D.C. ready for everything but not
really prepared for all that I experienced."
taught her how to apply her interests in international affairs without
the encumbrances of textbooks or lectures. She had hoped it would open
her eyes to a career path she couldn't seem to find in Fort Worth.
to Washington because I knew I needed out of academe," she says. "In Washington
I seem to have found the direction I was hunting for. I have discovered
an applicable way to focus my education."
moment she woke up in the morning and hurried to catch a crowded train
to work, to the times she would pass the Russian Embassy on her lunch
hour, the experience was overwhelming. She had to pinch herself every
day to know it wasn't a dream. One incident still stands out.
asked me to go to this seminar and take notes and report back. I sat down
and started talking to this very nice man before the lecture started.
A few minutes into the event he excused himself by saying, ‘Sorry to leave,
but I have to give a talk now.' I watched him leave the seat next to me
and walk up to the podium just as he was being introduced as the keynote
speaker. I had been carrying on a totally normal, ordinary conversation
with the former president of Bolivia."
Not all of
the students who go to Washington return this upbeat, but for most a positive
thread does link their Beltway days. The experience fundamentally changed
their career path and, they say, for the better.
you discover a new passion, make a lifelong friend or just reaffirm certain
things you already knew … or the semester proves to be not quite what
you hoped … that place, the atmosphere and your time there shape who you
become," Reasoner says. "I'm just glad that in my case I have nothing
but great memories."
is 2002 journalism graduate who said her semester as a Washington intern
was the most memorable, entertaining and life-changing semester of her
college career. It's also where she learned to drive her motorized scooter
with the precision of a NASCAR pro. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.