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Political Education Par Excellence: Why CUA’s Parliamentary Internships Are So Valuable

Rebecca Hough and Brandon PettitFor many Capitol Hill interns, the closest they come to interacting with the boss — a member of the U.S. Congress — is opening and sorting mail from his constituents.

The situation is totally different for CUA students who intern for a member of the Parliament (MP) of the United Kingdom, Ireland or the European Union during a semester abroad. Whereas a congressional intern must find a niche among a senator’s or representative’s dozen or more professional staffers, a parliamentary intern typically assists a staff of just one or two — guaranteeing plenty of access and responsibility.

How many congressional interns end up writing the speeches of their member of Congress or briefing them on international trouble spots and domestic issues, as current seniors Rebecca Hough and Brandon Pettit recently did for British MPs?

“I worked for an MP named Bridget Prentice and ended up being the only person in her Parliament office after just a couple of weeks, as her research assistant moved to another office,” says Hough, a politics major from Long Beach, Calif., who did her internship during the summer of 2005. “Bridget is a minister in the Department of Constitutional Affairs in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, and I helped prepare her for monthly sessions in which other MPs grilled her about her leadership of the UK’s judicial policy. I was also in charge of her daily schedule and correspondence with constituents, assisted with press releases and speeches, and coordinated with her departmental staff and her office in the borough where she was elected. In addition, I attended several events with Bridget, including one in 10 Downing Street [the home and office of the UK’s prime minister].”

Pettit, a politics major from Albany, N.Y., also wrote speeches for the British MP he served, Louise Ellman, who represents Liverpool Riverside. He briefed her on such matters as government plans to charge drivers for using urban roads, Iran and civil rights in Chechnya.

A parliamentary intern’s access to leading national politicians is especially remarkable in a small political system such as Ireland’s. Current senior and psychology major Tara Treffry tells the story of the very first day of her 2005 internship in Dublin, when the member of the Irish House of Representatives that she served invited her and another American intern to a reception for the Turkish ambassador. “I was nervous,” Treffry remembers. “I thought my parliament member wasn’t going to pay any attention to me at the reception and that we wouldn’t know anybody. When we got there, though, he had the whole party line up to meet us. It was a succession of ‘Meet the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Oh, there’s the minister of foreign affairs — come over here and meet the girls from America! And you haven’t met the prime minister yet — here he is.’ They were all so welcoming. They said, ‘If you need anything, if you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask.’ ”

Over the past 20 years, hundreds of CUA students have gotten access to the innermost circles of a foreign government by interning for members of the parliaments of the UK, Ireland or the European Union. Each semester an average of five students head to Dublin, eight to London, and five to Leuven, Belgium (to intern in the nearby EU Parliament). All but one of these options combine working for an MP approximately 25 hours a week and taking classes on the indigenous political system, literature and culture. The exception is a 10-week London summer program, which involves working full-time for an MP. CUA interns — most of whom are politics majors — must do a good bit of writing about their internship, analyzing the experience and comparing the host country’s political system to that of the United States.

“When we started offering parliamentary internships in Europe in the 1980s, we were the only ones doing so,” says Professor of Politics John Kromkowski, who was assistant dean for international studies and internships from 1990 to 2003. “Now some other universities do, but we’re still two to three laps ahead of them.”

A 1991 CUA graduate, Michael Helmicki, ended up with even bigger responsibilities than Hough and Pettit as a result of his 1990 internship for British MP Sir Edward Heath, who had been prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974. Helmicki was such an impressive intern that Heath brought him onto his paid staff after Helmicki graduated from CUA. In the year and a half that followed, Helmicki wrote speeches and studies for the MP.

Helmicki also drafted several chapters of what later became the autobiography of Heath, who had played a Richard Nixon-like role in the UK’s normalizing of relations with China and was a key advocate of England’s joining the European Union. When Helmicki’s work visa expired, Heath helped the young man get a business consulting job back in the States. But Helmicki continued to advise Heath — especially on the Russian policy he had studied at CUA — for a long while.

“Sir Edward was the most transformative of people for me as a mentor, and he wasn’t shy about introducing me to very high-level people, including Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon and Prime Minister John Major,” Helmicki remembers. Heath also took Helmicki on his political trips abroad, enabling the CUA alumnus to meet important Chinese officials. Helmicki says those Chinese connections have proved “absolutely instrumental” to his current success as managing director and general partner of the Rockville, Md., and Singapore-based Corstone Capital, an investment firm that has staked more than $1 billion in the Chinese real estate and debt markets.

“A mutual respect between Sir Edward and me developed into a friendship that lasted until his death last year,” says the CUA grad.

Helmicki is but one example of a CUA intern who became friends with the European politician they served. “My MP, Jim Cunningham of Coventry, England, taught me a lot about prioritizing, having a good work ethic and managing the competing interests with which every politician must contend,” says Jennifer (Zoghby) Ekman, B.A. 1995. “He even allowed me to travel back to his district with him and stay with his family at their home for weekends and political events. His wife, Marion, took me in as an adopted daughter. Mr. Cunningham and his wife and daughter visited me at CUA after the internship.”

Another parliamentary intern, Yvonne Salter Wright, B.A. 1997, ended up getting married to an Englishman, Jeremy Wright, who is himself now a member of Parliament. Yvonne actually met Jeremy before her internship began, when he was a 21-year-old visiting CUA on the way to beginning an internship in the office of a U.S. congressman.

Helmicki is also not the only alum who owes his career to his parliamentary internship. “Interns can often write their own tickets for jobs, using their internship as a path into public service jobs,” says Kromkowski. “We’ve had students who came back from interning with a member of the Parliament of the European Union and immediately got jobs on Capitol Hill and with lobbying firms that wanted to know how the EU works and how to do business with Europe.”

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Revised: March 2007

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The Catholic University of America,
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