From City Hall to the Oval Office…and Beyond
by Joan Katherine Cramer
By the time Anthony Attanasio ’02 was appointed assistant commissioner for government and community relations at the New Jersey Department of Transportation — the youngest assistant commissioner in New Jersey, then, and now, three years later — he had already packed more work experience into his young life than many people have in an entire career. Editor’s note: Attanasio is now executive director, Utility & Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.
He had served as deputy chief of staff to the head of New Jersey Transit, worked as an operative in several political campaigns in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and run his own political consulting firm.
It all started with a Washington (D.C.) Internship in the fall of his senior year at Saint Joseph’s. And he’s not the only alumnus whose political science department internship helped him hit the ground running after graduation: Jill Stracko ’06 became a staff writer at the Obama White House in 2009 and now is a manager of executive and internal communications at Google. Diana Silva ’06 worked as a junior planner for the city of Norristown, Pa., went to Drexel Law School on a full scholarship and is now practicing environmental law at Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox in Philadelphia. On the nonprofit side, Alyssa Ryan ’11 is pursuing her passion for helping the less fortunate as director of communications for Quality Progressions. And Steven Coyle ’13 was hired in February as a writer at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.
Not only have these five alumni found work they love, they got a jump on their careers because of their internships, which their political science professors pushed them to think about strategically from the beginning of their time at Saint Joseph’s.
“It’s been a long-term goal of the department to provide students with both an academic experience and a high-quality work experience,” says Lisa Baglione, Ph.D., professor and chair of the political science department. “Not only do the students make professional connections and learn the basics of how one behaves in an office, they get a sense of their own skills, what they can contribute and what they might actually enjoy. There is great value in exploring the link between real-world experience and what you are learning in the classroom.”
The department offers two primary experiential opportunities, the Philadelphia Area Internship and the Washington Internship, in addition to informal internships, often through faculty members, as well as two major study abroad programs — in London, with members of Parliament, and Brussels, with members of the European Parliament and certain NGOs.
Francis Graham Lee, Ph.D., a professor of political science at SJU for 44 years, has been sending students to the Washington Center for internships for 35 of those years, placing them everywhere from the General Accounting Office and the National Institutes of Health to Congress and the White House.
“You don’t have to be a political science major to do the program — I’ve had business and English and even science majors — but if you are a political science or an international relations student and don’t want to do the Washington Internship, you should change your major,” says Lee. “In many internships, students work eight or nine hours a week, mostly observing, which is great. But what has always impressed me about this program is that students are essentially doing full-time, entry-level jobs, jobs with real content, and are expected to study and to write about the experience.”
Attanasio is a veteran of the Washington Internship. Inspired by a two-week government study trip he’d taken through Canada with Lee — “It was incredible to travel to another country and learn about their system,” he says — he interned during the fall of his senior year at the Canadian Embassy. He worked for its science and technology counselor, went to Congressional hearings, and wrote a science and technology newsletter. He even got to do some work at the White House, as a volunteer in his spare time, for the Republican National Committee.
As memorable as Attanasio’s first experience working in a government office might have been, a much larger event would come to define that semester for him. One day at the beginning of his internship’s second week, he arrived at the embassy at 8:15 a.m., as usual. Shortly after 9, his Canadian supervisor was running out the door.
“Anthony, Anthony, America has been attacked!” he screamed.
It was 9/11, and they were two blocks from the Capitol. Everyone was fleeing, the people around him were frantic, cell phones weren’t working, and the Metro was disgorging passengers because it couldn’t pass beneath the Pentagon. Attanasio’s father worked on Wall Street, his uncle in one of the towers. He anxiously waited all day, until he got to a landline that night, to find out both of them had survived, miraculously.
After that day, he says, “The rest of the internship was fascinating — to be in Washington, just after 9/11, working for an ally. I was already patriotic, but there was a fervor in D.C., a feeling that we were all in this together, Democrats and Republicans. Of course, politics eventually crept back in, but if we don’t learn something from an experience like that, shame on us.”
Before his Washington experience, Attanasio had done the Philadelphia Area Internship — a summer stint in the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office in Trenton, N.J., with then-Sen. Rich Bagger.
“I learned about redistricting — that was the last summer the Republicans had a majority in either house in New Jersey — and I learned a lot about legislation and got to write press releases,” says Attanasio, who discovered that his true calling was politics and government, not law school as he had thought. “It was a great warm-up.”
Fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, Silva spent the fall of her junior year doing the Washington Internship, working on Central American issues for the Center for International Policy. She loved that students from all over the country live together in apartment-style housing and meet to discuss their work.
“Everybody in that program was interesting, and they weren’t working just in politics — my roommate worked for Merrill Lynch,” she says. “We had meetings every week with amazing speakers.”
Stracko says she strategically scheduled her stint in Washington for the second semester of her senior year. “I wanted that semester to turn into a job.” She interned on then-Sen. Joe Biden’s foreign relations committee staff and, sure enough, when the semester ended, she was hired as a legislative correspondent. After Biden became vice president to Barack Obama, a colleague on the foreign relations committee staff helped her get a job as senior writer for messages at the White House. Soon she was running the writing department.
“I was so proud to be part of the administration,” she says. “I was part of the office that handled the President’s mail and everything that went out under his signature.”
Two years later, a colleague introduced her to someone at Google, and she was offered the job she holds now.
“I work with executives here at Google in San Francisco doing leadership events and company-wide meetings and things like that,” Stracko says. “I’ve been here more than three years, and I’ve never been happier, which proves that it really is just a matter of getting your foot in the door. If I hadn’t gone to St. Joe’s and done the internship, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Susan Liebell, Ph.D., who runs the Philadelphia Area Internship, says, “The internship experience gives students a chance to figure out who they are, what they like, and, often just as important, what they don’t like.” It is the equivalent of a class, and students earn full course credit for working at least 10 hours a week, 130 hours total, for an organization they select. They keep a journal, read a relevant book and write two papers linking their experience to what they’ve read.
During the summer after her sophomore year, Ryan interned in Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s office, assigned to the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services. One of Ryan’s five brothers has autism and she cares deeply about the issue. From 50 summer interns, she was chosen for the “Mayor’s Award of Excellence” and honored at a special mayoral luncheon. The office wanted to keep her on as a consultant, and she says Liebell helped her to do that through the Philadelphia Area Internship.
“If I had to pick one person who tells the story of the internship, it would be Alyssa,” says Liebell. “Not only did she very ambitiously want to do the mayor’s internship, she took the personal interest she had in mental disability and the intellectual interests she had and made them come together. She wrote a seminar paper that brought tears to my eyes, and seminar papers do not, on the whole, bring tears to my eyes. And now, in this economic climate, she found herself a job that is really her.”
Liebell’s program is thoroughly hands-on, which is not to say that she coddles her students. They are expected to dream up and secure their own internships, though she does maintain a list of possibilities for students who get stuck. “This is one of the skills we want them to develop,” she says. “It is a step-by-step process. They think about what interests them, they Google relevant organizations. They call, introduce themselves, and ask if there might be an internship opportunity. I have a suggested script for the phone call. Then we work on writing and rewriting a resumé until it reflects who they really are, what makes them unique. One of my students said to me the other day, ‘I absolutely hated that part, but it turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of the process.’”
Ryan says she also gained confidence interning in London with Karen Buck, Labour Party MP for Westminster North, when she studied for a semester at the University of Westminster through SJU’s Study Abroad program. She worked on Buck’s re-election campaign, developing get-out-the-vote strategies for younger members of the electorate and overseeing immigration and housing casework.
“I love following students through their journeys,” says Kelly Horning, SJU’s assistant director for semester abroad and health and safety. “They come back saying, ‘I can’t believe I thought …,’ or ‘I never realized …,’ or ‘I’m so much more independent now.’’’ They really grow and change into these different people.”
Coyle says that’s exactly what happened to him, studying at the Leuven Institute just outside of Brussels. He worked for a member of the European Parliament. “I saw political issues in black and white before, and now I’m more aware of the gray areas,” he says.
All five students keep in touch with their mentors and try to help other SJU students map out their dreams by sharing experiences with them, returning to campus for networking and offering internship opportunities. They all recommend doing internships, as many as possible. Coyle did four.
“College is great, but it’s not the real world,” says Attanasio. “Going into an office, putting on a suit every day, it’s invaluable. It gives you a glimpse of what it’s going to be like, without the pressure of having to provide for yourself or a family. And it makes you humble. You realize that you learn something from every experience, that all work is valuable, that no task is beneath you and that you’re part of something larger. No matter what the organization, you’re part of a mission.”