Duke in DC program goes into the halls of power

Participants meet movers and shakers

As he sat on a plane taking him home to Las Vegas, Michael Harris looked out the window and saw a familiar building. As the U.S. Capitol passed beneath him, he thought, “I have found my calling in life.”

The Sanford public policy major had finished his junior year at Duke and was returning home after participating in Sanford’s Duke in DC program. He’d spent many eventful hours during his internship in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“The program taught me things I couldn’t learn in a classroom,” Harris says.

The undergraduate program, begun in 2013, is an integral part of the university’s growing presence in the nation’s capital. During their semester, participants serve as interns by day and take a full load of four classes on politics and policymaking after work hours. The program is run by full-time Sanford faculty, including director Kristin Goss M.P.P. ’96, associate professor of public policy and political science.

Besides the classes and internships, the program includes field trips to the White House and other halls of power. There are guest lectures and receptions with elected officials, campaign managers, lobbyists, regulators, consultants, and other movers and shakers. These VIPs are often Duke alumni, such as Paul Teller ’93, chief of staff to Texas Senator Ted Cruz; State Department public diplomacy officer Michael Alpern ’00; American Enterprise Institute scholar Dan Blumenthal J.D. ’00; CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson ’96; GOP pollster Neil Newhouse ’74; Karishma Merchant ’07, education aide to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine; U.S. Representative Dan Lipinski Ph.D. ’98 of Illinois; and Danny Werfel M.P.P. ’95, former acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.

With the guidance of Sanford’s Office of Career Services, students have arranged internships with the offices of congressmen and senators, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Senate Republican Conference, the Brennan Center for Justice, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Federal Trade Commission, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other organizations.

Current Sanford senior Alex Elliott interned last spring with U.S. Representative— and former Sanford professor— David E. Price of North Carolina’s Fourth Congressional District, which covers parts of the Triangle. Elliott’s responsibilities included everything from researching policy and producing memos for legislative staff members to giving tours of the Capitol to constituents and the occasional diplomat.

Last year Max Fischer-Zernin ’15 interned with Facebook’s global policy team, which monitors the political landscape in countries where the social network is active and works to reconcile a country’s privacy and personal communications policies with Facebook’s service. During Fischer-Zernin’s time with Facebook, a country’s communications ministry (he declines to specify which country) wanted to make Facebook liable for content posted on its platform. The company successfully argued that just as a phone company can’t be held liable for conversations over its lines, Facebook shouldn’t be held responsible for content that users post on their profiles.

After graduating, Fischer-Zernin interned this past summer with Mozilla, maker of the Firefox Web browser. He planned to begin law school at New York University this fall with a focus on innovation law.

Though relatively new, the Duke in DC program is leaving a lasting impression on students and influencing their career trajectories.

In Harris’ case, it did both. After his experience, Harris focused his study at Duke on foreign policy. Earlier this year, the 2014 graduate joined now-Minority Leader Reid’s office as a staff assistant. He hopes one day to become an adviser on foreign-policy issues.

Seeing the human side of interactions among senators, clerks, and others was one of his favorite parts of the experience, he says. His internship coincided with an especially historic period for Congress. The refusal by Tea Party Republicans to raise the federal debt ceiling led to a partial government shutdown. There was also the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which reignited debate over gun control.

One of his most poignant memories, he says, is of watching the gun-control debate with other students. Then some families of the murdered children came into the chamber to witness the vote.

“We watched as measure after measure was defeated and the families next to me started crying. Boxes of tissues were being passed around in the Senate chamber,” he says. “It was a particularly emotional experience for me and one I’ll never forget.”

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