Sophomore Kara Junttila was delighted when an article she had co-authored on the nuclear budget was published recently on Roll Call, a major online source for legislative and political news on Capitol Hill.
An intern at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan global security think tank based in Washington, D.C., Junttila wrote the article with Stimson’s co-founder, Barry Blechman.
Junttila is among the undergraduates participating in the first semester of USC’s Dornsife Washington, D.C. program. Led by Jeffrey Fields ’07, assistant professor of the practice of international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the program enables students to spend a semester in the nation’s capital, where they split time between coursework and internships. Open to students from all majors, the program launched this spring.
“The Stimson Center is great about allowing us to publish something internally on its website, but when I started the Dornsife in Washington, D.C. Program, I definitely didn’t expect to be published in any kind of external publication like Roll Call,” Junttila said.
The opportunity to write the article with Blechman arose when the senior researcher initially slated to work on the piece had to withdraw due to other commitments. Junttila stepped up, researching the topic and writing a first draft.
“It was very exciting for me and an incredible addition to my resume, as well as a wonderful opportunity to explore this topic and work with someone who is truly an expert in the field,” she said.
Practical politics come to life
This sort of opportunity exemplifies how this immersive program brings practical politics to life for students in D.C., said Fields, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense who brings years of experience at the highest level of government to his leadership of the program.
This vibrant, dynamic city offers a fantastic working and learning environment for students who are interested in policy and politics.
“This vibrant, dynamic city offers a fantastic working and learning environment for students who are interested in policy and politics,” he said. “They are able to attend congressional hearings and events at think tanks, where they can hear from leading scholars, policymakers and practitioners.”
Taught by practitioners with extensive real-world experience who are all experts in their respective fields, the program comprises three international relations courses on American foreign policy, espionage and intelligence, and contemporary international politics. The latter incorporates three modules: the geopolitics of energy, the Middle East and regional issues in Africa. The course on American foreign policy is taught by Fields.
“Professor Fields stresses that D.C. is a town where you need connections,” said Dan Morgan-Russell, a junior majoring in international relations and the global economy. “The value of the professors teaching the program is that they have all spent considerable time in this town and all have connections here.”
Such connections allowed the program faculty to bring in a wide range of high-level foreign policy experts as speakers.
“The greatest thing this program has provided is the people they have been able to bring in to talk to us — people who are making the laws we are learning about back on campus at USC,” Morgan-Russell said. “Some talks with policymakers have been off the record. In those sessions, they give us the real deal on how foreign policy is actually made. Since it’s off the record, you are not going to get it anywhere else. You have to be here.”
Added Fields: “These practitioners and policymakers add a flavor of real-world experience. Students get a chance to interact directly with them, ask questions and hear their experience firsthand. This is a wonderful supplement to the textbook classroom experience.”
Doing what’s best for students
Students also complete an internship with one of Washington’s many policy-focused organizations, including government agencies, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, think tanks, consulting firms and congressional offices.
“Students came with a variety of interests, and I worked with them to place them in internships I thought would be the best fit for them,” said Fields, who earned his Ph.D. in international relations from USC Dornsife.
Taylor Bower, a double major in political science and international relations, has nurtured a passion for politics since she ran to represent her fifth-grade class in student government. Now on course to graduate in December, she is a legislative intern for a congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I thought it would be a lot of paper pushing and busy work, but I get to go to policy briefings, take reports and write letters to constituents,” she said. “I’ve even gotten to write a couple of vote recommendations.
It’s been the greatest experience I’ve ever had.
“I love it. It’s been the greatest experience I’ve ever had.”
Bower said she aims to stay on in D.C. over the summer to work in political consultancy. After graduating she hopes to return to the Hill.
“It’s such an exciting place to work,” she said. “It’s very challenging in many ways because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s thrilling.”
Entering ‘the tank’
As part of the program, students explored the Library of Congress, toured the West Wing and visited the Pentagon, where they were granted admittance to “the tank.”
Very few people outside the close-knit circle of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are allowed to enter this room, officially known as the JCS Conference Room, where the chairman has convened weekly meetings since 1947.
Another highlight was a visit to the International Spy Museum, a privately owned museum dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage.
Roque Valiente, a senior majoring in international relations and the global economy, said that prior to coming to D.C., he had little understanding of the intelligence community.
“I never thought I would learn about the CIA and the FBI and their investigations,” he said. “It’s something you hear about in movies, so to actually take a class by trained professionals who have had experience in the field is unmatched.”