Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing

Experience, Exposure, & Enlightenment
Student interns have a capital good time with D.C. alums

by Alex Parker '04

photos by Scott Suchman

JANUARY 3, DAY ONE: I was off and running through Capitol Hill to cover a breaking news story. The House Republican leadership was electing committee chairs, and journalist Mike Doyle '78 and I were tracking a Californian slated to head the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Lesson one, says Doyle, was always to use the word powerful when writing the phrase "House Ways and Means Committee." The leaders kept pushing back the meeting: from noon to three to five, prompting Doyle to quote columnist Russell Baker: "Reporting in Washington often consists of waiting in marble halls for five hours so someone can come out and lie to you."

A Washington, D.C., correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, Doyle was among 40 alumni who sponsored student internships during January's winter term. Due in part to the hiring last year of Kimberly Betz, the Longman director of internships, Oberlin's Office of Career Services (OCS) has developed a structured process to link students with alums who can offer meaningful, academically based, off-campus work experiences. "Alumni, traditionally, are very supportive of winter term," Betz says. "It's a chance for students to take academics and activism out of the ivory tower and into the world."OCS solicited internships in a variety of fields across the country--the Cleveland Museum of Art, Pathways to Housing in New York, a water engineering company in Boulder--but emphasized D.C., where regional alumni support is strong and where hands-on work in government, grass-roots, and policy-shaping offices abounds.

Take David Persky '02, who got right to work tracking laundered money and international crooks withthe Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Headed by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the subcommittee scrutinizes organized crime, labor management, racketeering, gambling, and money laundering involving U.S. banks and securities firms. "This is a terrific opportunity for college students to see how their federal government operates," says Linda Gustitus '69, long-time chief counsel to Levin and initiator of the internship.

Persky, a double-degree student majoring in law and society and voice performance, focused chiefly on international finance, helping prosecutors compile information for congressional reports. "We uncovered a lot of bank laundering that people will see when the report is published by the Senate," says Persky, who was asked by his office not to reveal specifics. "There is truth to the stereotype that Swiss banks are corrupt."

Persky also worked for the senator's personal office, helping Levin's press office interpret changes in law and policy and adjust what they present to the media. In other words, spin control. He prepared news paper clips and sat in with spin-doctors as they worked their magic. The experience was inspiring.

"I'm more driven," he says. "As one individual, I'm capable of making active change using my education to promote something I believe in. The Republican Party is not--as I had thought before--a vindictive, money-hungry group of individuals just vying for power for power's sake. There really are legitimate issues being raised by people who have been socialized differently than I have been."

Still, Persky is an unabashed liberal who hopes to have a career in international affairs that may or may not involve politics.  

From its tenth-floor office on DuPont Circle, Environmental Defense might be mistaken for a law firm. A large meeting room encased with glass doors lies behind the receptionist, and rows of offices extend in all directions. It's homey, but has the air of professionalism one associates with a high-powered business.

With its alliance of attorneys, scientists, and lobbyists, Environmental Defense makes strong efforts to push eco-friendly legislation through Congress. Rather than shouting and denouncing, staff members stay focused on results and innovative problem solving. Consider the group's slogan: "Finding the ways that work."

"I have a lot of respect for this approach," says Lindsey Dillon '03, a double major in politics and law and society who interned with attorney Karen Florini '79. "They don't specifically lobby for this or that."

The advocacy group represents more than 300,000 members, and, since 1967, has linked science, economics, and law to address the most urgent environmental problems. Dillon's project focused on antibiotic resistance. Environmental Defense contends that the overuse of antibiotics, both in medicine and industrial agriculture, has precipitated new strains of resistant bacteria that are becoming immune to treatment. As a researcher and analyst, her job wasn't easy. Often holes in data and important facts were concealed under corporate proprietorship.

"The really useful information--what exactly each chicken farm or company uses--is kept hidden under proprietary rights. Companies don't legally have to reveal the information, so they don't."

"Lindsey had a chance to see interactions between different advocacy groups," Florini says. "She learned that when you see an issue that's scientifically and politically complex, you have to look at different sides to find an approach that works."

Also boosting the advocacy effort was Sarah Meyer '02, whose internship with Jobs with Justice involved mobilizing local unions and religious organizations. The 13-year-old national coalition of unions and civil-rights groups fights to defend and expand workers' rights. "I wanted to know what it was like to work in an office," says Meyer, who, from an eight-story suite, felt a bit removed from her former field work with Union Central and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Internship sponsor Kris Raab '89 is a research economist with Communication Workers of America, a labor union that helped create Jobs with Justice in 1987. Now facing a Republican White House and Congress, she says she anticipates a wave of anti-union measures, among them the weakening of worker-safety restrictions and "paycheck protection" that would require membership consent for unions to use money for political purposes "The very idea is offensive to us," Raab says. "We call it paycheck deception."

Among Meyer's projects was the creation of a database of student newspapers, which will be used in coordination with student labor groups. I asked Meyer why she became involved with the labor movement. "Bad jobs," she briefly replied. "These people shouldn't be treated the way they are."

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