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SPIA gives students DC experience

By Julie Kane

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 07 - October 10, 1996

"This is about as real as it gets," said Cole McCulloch, referring to his experience last summer in a program called the Washington Semester. As part of the course requirements, McCulloch was an intern for a House member from Idaho. Part of his job was to get late-breaking news to the representative that might affect legislation he was considering. Many times in that environment, he would see familiar political figures, such as Senator Bob Dole, Attorney General Janet Reno, President Bill Clinton, and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in action.

The Washington Semester, entering its third year, is a program of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Approved last April by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, the school was designed to achieve more effective use of resources devoted to public-affairs programs across the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Patricia Edwards, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, said, "SPIA is an administrative framework that encourages interdepartmental collaboration to provide excellence in instruction, produce innovative and relevant interdisciplinary research on issues of public concern, and develop new and effective programs of outreach."

The Washington Semester, a combination of internships, seminars, and research projects, achieves the goals listed above. For 10 weeks, undergraduate students from different academic disciplines have an opportunity to experience the real world of government and non-profit organizations and reflect upon their exchange with other students and outstanding faculty members. The Washington Semester is conducted at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Consortium in Old Town, Alexandria.

This allows students an opportunity to intern at federal and national organizations in and around Washington, D.C., and in some large local government offices as well.

McCulloch, a political science and legal studies major, described the location as "second to none." He said the internship, along with the classroom instruction, provided the "highest level of learning...more like a graduate-level course."

A large part of the success comes from a careful effort to match students' interests with the right agencies. Program assistants help students to think through what kind of internship would best meet their needs and interests, assist them in securing the internship, and then work with them as they begin the intern experience.

From their exposure to the workplace, students were able to see how issues are viewed differently and how they interconnect. This applied to the classroom instruction, as well. The course work of the Washington Semester was team taught by Max Stephenson, associate professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning Department, and Edward Weisband, a professor in the Political Science Department.

Weisband commented, "It's rare to have two faculty members from different colleges working together. We really tried to give a mutual interpretation and evaluation of students' work. The value of SPIA," he said, "is that it provides true cross-cutting discourse."

Stephenson has been teaching the Washington Semester since its inception. "Students are very pleased with the quality of the course," he said. "They have the ability to work with these agencies. Also, students have greater access to faculty members than in a typical classroom. Many friendships develop, and there is a real closeness to faculty members," he said.

The School of Public and International Affairs maximizes diversity and draws linkages whenever possible. The students and faculty members from the Washington Semester concur that diversity and interdisciplinary learning not only work, but that the combination can provide greater insights compared to the traditional classroom experience. The program can be invaluable in other ways as well. According to James Wolf, director for the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP), "the course gives undergraduate students interested in international law, politics, or public service a real advantage when they apply to law schools, graduate schools, or for employment in these areas."

Several informational seminars will be offered to acquaint interested students about the Washington Semester for summer 1997. These sessions will be held in the Donaldson Brown Continuing Education Center October 30 and December 3 at noon, and January 29 at 7 p.m. For more information, call James Bohland at 1-5517 or Mary Ellen Verdu at 1-5133.