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Virginia Capital Semester: Hands-on legislative learning

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Julia Carney said her internship with Del. Vivian E. Watts was an eye-opening learning experience.

During this year’s General Assembly session, Virginia Commonwealth University seniors Brian Bailey and Julia Carney spent their days tracking bills, monitoring legislative meetings and researching policy issues for senior lawmakers.

Bailey and Carney, interns through the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public AffairsVirginia Capital Semester program, describe working on the front lines of the state legislature as an extraordinary opportunity.

You’re never just making copies. It’s always substantive.

“I would recommend this program hands-down,” said Carney, a political science major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “You’re never just making copies. It’s always substantive. And being in this environment during session, I’m learning so much about procedure and the legislative process.”

Bailey and Carney are among 21 VCU students this semester enrolled in the Capital Semester program, receiving a hands-on education about the inner workings of government.

It’s more than just an internship. Capital Semester is a six-credit course, plus students carry an academic load of another six to nine additional credits. Lawmakers ask the program for interns.

While the students spent most weekdays at the Virginia Capitol during this year’s 60-day legislative session, which ended a day early on March 11, they also attend a weekly three-hour seminar Wednesday nights in the General Assembly Building. Guest speakers include lawmakers, lobbyists and state policymakers who share their expertise and knowledge.

Brian Bailey confers with Erin Monaghan, legislative aide to House Minority Leader David J. Toscano.
Brian Bailey confers with Erin Monaghan, legislative aide to House Minority Leader David J. Toscano.
Brian Bailey and Julia Carney catch up on legislative business as they leave the General Assembly Building.
Brian Bailey and Julia Carney catch up on legislative business as they leave the General Assembly Building.

It’s been eye-opening, students agree.

“I keep hearing the phrase, ‘the sausage making’ and how you’ll get to see the sausage factory — the legislative process isn’t always pretty but this is how it happens,” said Carney, who is interested in law school.

“I’ve been so impressed by how collegial, professional and friendly everyone is, and the sense of camaraderie,” Carney said. “All you hear about are the huge disagreements, but I would love for everyone to see the tiny moments of humanity.”

Carney worked for Del. Vivian E. Watts, a 20-year member of the House of Delegates from Fairfax who also served during the 1980s.

“I have had interns forever, and Julia has just been great,” Watts said. “We use the program every year. The students are genuinely interested and enthusiastic about what we do, and they work very hard. We value their contributions.”

Bailey, a political science major from Fredericksburg, learned about the program from a presentation made during his constitutional law class by Jordan Stewart, the coordinator of the Office of Public Policy Outreach.

“It sounded like an amazing opportunity, and it has been,” Bailey said. “It’s been nice seeing how people really are making an effort to make Virginia a better place to live.”

Bailey spent the session in the office of House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, where he followed the workings of the constitutional law and criminal subcommittees of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

“My goal is to attend law school, and to be able to watch panels of lawyers debate the law and watch their back-and-forth has really affirmed what I want to do,” he said. “Watching firsthand how laws are made has been an incredible experience.”

The Capital Semester program is the perfect opportunity for our students to not only see the policy process in Virginia in action but to become a part of that process.

Toscano said interns are actively engaged in the legislative process. “They do everything, from looking at bills to researching policy. They’re valuable.”

It has been a busy winter for Bailey and Carney. In addition to going to school full-time and working at the legislature, both have part-time jobs – Carney works for VCU 10 hours a week, and Bailey works weekends serving tables at Firebirds.

“It’s important to stay organized,” said Bailey, who is interested in running for office one day or becoming a judge. “You have to maximize your time.”

Robyn McDougle, Ph.D, faculty director of the Office of Public Policy Outreach in the Center for Public Policy, said the Wilder School is proud to prepare Virginia’s next generation of policymakers.

“The Capital Semester program is the perfect opportunity for our students to not only see the policy process in Virginia in action but to become a part of that process,” she said. “The experiences, opportunities, relationships and networks that our students are exposed to over their weeks at the state Capitol prove to be lifelong and career impacting.

Julia Carney looks over legislative email between meetings. Next to her is Deborah L. Sherman, legislative aide to Del. Vivian E. Watts.
Julia Carney looks over legislative email between meetings. Next to her is Deborah L. Sherman, legislative aide to Del. Vivian E. Watts.

 

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