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BYU students experience government firsthand with Washington Seminar, an internship program that boasts a U.S. Senator among its graduates.
BYU students have traveled to participate in the Washington Seminar since 1973. The program has been offered to students year-round since 1980. Approximately 120–140 students attend the program from BYU yearly.
Political science professor Earl Fry served as the program’s faculty director this past semester. Fry said one early participant in the program, Jeff Flake, has now been elected as a U.S. senator representing Arizona, joining a growing number of LDS legislators in Congress. Fry hopes others will follow Flake and become prominent decision-makers, helping to strengthen the U.S. government for the benefit of all Americans.
Fry recalled an opportunity to hear President Gordon B. Hinckley address the National Press Club in Washington on March 8, 2000. Fry said he remembers President Hinckley urging members of the Church to exercise civic responsibility and be active and knowledgeable participants in the political process.
As part of the program, students spend a semester living in affordable housing within walking distance of the White House and gaining professional work experience in Washington, D.C. BYU student Ryan Wallace took this experience as an opportunity to learn and have fun.
“I worked for Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s state senator, in his health committee,” Wallace said. As part of his job he interacted with and saw many well-known public figures around the Senate building, including Miss America.
“It was really cool to see big-name people walking around,” Wallace said.
Students visit historical sites and monuments and participate in the various social activities Washington, D.C. offers. Wallace said that with this program, as with everything, there needs to be a balance. He learned how to set a schedule and has applied that after returning home from the program.
He compared setting different schedules for work, school and his mission. He said because he learned how to plan for work and school, he is able to focus more and complete assignments.
Wallace counseled other students interested in doing the seminar program to not be scared. “If you are teachable and do a good job they will appreciate it,” he said. “If you have the expectation that you deserve something, you will go and return in vain.”
BYU economics major Avram Twitchell is a junior who recently returned from the Fall 2013 Washington Seminar. Twitchell interned at a political consulting firm, gathering research for clients. He said his experience in Washington has enhanced his BYU education in a number of ways.
“I have gained new perspectives of national politics that I couldn’t have gotten without going to Washington, D.C.,” Twitchell said. “I had a firsthand look into politics and gained real-world experience.”
Twitchell said he was able to see how policy developed and how it affected the nation. This gave him greater perspective on the impact one citizen can have. “While working with well-known people, I was able to see that they’re normal people making a difference,” Twitchell said.
Fry said the most recent Gallup Poll found that people identified ineffective government as the most serious problem facing the United States, beating out economic concerns. He also said citizen participation in the political process has diminished drastically. In November 2014, voter turnout was the lowest level for any national election since 1942.
“The academic offerings provided to students on campus or in programs around the world are first class, but I would urge students to give serious consideration to spending one semester at BYU’s ‘campus’ in the nation’s capitol,” Fry said.
Fry said it is important that students understand their civic duty and be active in their communities, states and nation.
“This unparalleled experience will provide them with the foundation to fulfill President Hinckley’s admonition to be actively engaged in the political process throughout their lives, whether at the international, national, state, local, school district or neighborhood levels,” he said.
Through his experience participating in the seminar, Fry has seen many BYU students with many different majors participate from all over the United States. Each time he sees students enhance their education and fulfill President Hinckley’s counsel.
Former Washington Seminar participant Catherine Christiansen said the seminar was the perfect introduction to real-world experiences. She was able to balance fun, work, culture and political experience. “Those four short months have changed me forever,” Christiansen said. “I learned so much about life and how the world works.”