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For Decades, Holy Cross’ Washington Semester Program Has Given Students Rare Opportunities

November 6th, 2008 by 

Each semester, Clarence Thomas ’71, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, makes it a point to meet with the 16 Holy Cross students who take part in the College’s Washington Semester Program.

“He brings them up to the Supreme Court, spends two hours with them in his chamber, talks to each one of them individually about their career plans, what they’re doing in D.C. right now,” explains Gary DeAngelis, associate director for special programs at Holy Cross’ Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies, who directs the Washington Semester Program. “He talks to them about his life at Holy Cross and what it was like. He does this every semester without fail. ”

Most students who participate in the program comment that is the highlight of their semester in Washington. DeAngelis says it is just one of the many qualities that make Holy Cross’ program unique.

Since 1971, Holy Cross has sent 15 or 16 students to intern, study (a seminar titled Topics in Public Policy meets once a week) and conduct research for a thesis for a full semester’s academic credit. And while numerous colleges and universities boast a Washington Semester program, few include such rigorous academic requirements or high standards.

DeAngelis believes that the 40 to 50-page thesis and oral defense requirement is the only one in the nation.

“It’s a very labor-intensive program because the paper must go through three readers — two professors in the student’s academic department, and myself,” he says.

Holy Cross’ program is multidisciplinary and provides students with direct, hands-on experience as well as academic study — no matter what their major.

“As you would expect, usually half of students who participate are political science majors,” says DeAngelis. “But we have students who are studying history, economics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, religious studies, the arts, and even premed. One might ask where is there any kind of consistency or cohesiveness in a program if you’re sending people from all these different disciplines?

“The overarching theme is public policy. Whether students are working at the National Institutes for Health doing research or at the Smithsonian doing curatorial work in the arts or on Capitol Hill or the White House it will all relate to public policy. For example, why would a premed student take part in this program? Because it’s not like it was 40 years ago, where a physician would say I’m not interested in politics, I’m a physician. Every physician in the country has to be aware of public policy. It’s true for the arts and every other field as well.”

It also engages students. When they convene for their weekly seminar, they bring their own backgrounds and engage in complex discussions.

“The students are not talking abstractly about public policy,” says DeAngelis. “What makes it an interesting seminar is that each student brings the work of their agencies into that discussion each week. One student might be arguing from the perspective of the White House, another student from a Democratic Senate office, another from one of the think tanks. They’re dealing with real issues in a tangible way. The debates get pretty lively.”

To ensure that agencies will give students substantive work, DeAngelis visits each student’s internship site twice each semester.

“One thing I hear over and over again when I visit with supervisors is that Holy Cross is the only college that sends a professor to visit the students,” he says. “Last semester it came from a director at the State Department who had been hosting students from colleges across the country for 25 years, and he said that I was the first professor he had ever talked to.”

In the last several years, students have interned at the White House, National Economic Council, Senate Judiciary Committee, Office of Senator Barack Obama, Office of Senator John Kerry, Children’s Defense Fund, National Institute of Justice, and CNN, among many others.

“This job never gets old,” says DeAngelis. “The change and development and accomplishments that I see when I visit students during the second time in the semester are astonishing. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to go down to Washington and hear their supervisors say that these are the best students we’ve had from any college in the country.”

What is it that distinguishes Holy Cross students?

“When I started asking around, agencies would always comment on the work ethic of our students,” he says. “Whether they were asked to photocopy or to help construct a speech for the president, they accomplished each task with the same enthusiasm and excitement.”

Agencies make note of that hard work. DeAngelis estimates that roughly half of all Washington Semester participants return to the nation’s capital after graduating, and some are offered a job at their agencies on the spot.

At least one student from Holy Cross has interned at “Meet the Press” each semester over the last 15 years, says DeAngelis.

“They get about 100 to 150 applications every semester from colleges all across the country, and they only accept three interns. Every semester they’ve taken a Holy Cross student. In fact, this semester they took two.”

He adds: “While the Washington Semester Program has provided students with an excellent learning opportunity it has also placed them in a situation that tends to bring out their best on many different levels.”

Related Information:

• Washington Semester student Palumberi ’10 reflects on Election Night from D.C.
Washington Semester Program
• Alumni Success Story: Clarence Thomas ’71
• Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies

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