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October 8, 2004

CUA's Parliamentary Internships,
Unique in American Education

By Warren Duffie

It was time for the weekly question-and-answer period between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the members of Parliament in the House of Commons. During these exchanges, held each Wednesday for 30 minutes, Blair must account for his recent executive decisions.

On this particular day, a CUA English/politics major participating in the university’s Parliamentary Internship Program was seated in a row of benches above the house floor when the issue of Britian’s involvement in the Iraq War came up. As Blair defended his position, tempers flared. Conservative Party members scoffed and booed. Labor Party members cheered Blair and jeered at the conservatives.

Then, as quickly as the rancor had risen, it quieted. When Blair prepared to leave, the assembly of MPs heartily thanked him for his time.

Melissa Ku (front row, third from left) and fellow participants in CUA's Parliamentary Internship Program in London.
“The sessions can get animated, but most of the time they’re very jovial,” says Melissa Ku, the CUA undergraduate who served as an intern for an MP. “The political accountability of the process really impressed me. If you make a decision, you have to face the opposition picking your decisions apart. Our politicians in the U.S. might need something like that.”

This year Ku was one of six CUA students who participated in the summer London session of the university’s Parliamentary Internship Program, in which students intern at the British, Irish and European parliaments. The internship program, started in 1978, falls under the auspices of CUA’s Study Abroad Programs.

These internships are unique in American education. CUA is the only U.S. university to offer parliamentary internships in London and Dublin and one of a handful to host one at the European Parliament in Brussels. Since these legislative bodies offer only a few internships to their own nations’ university students, CUA participants gain an insight into parliamentary issues and processes not available to most 20-year-olds.

“When a student does an internship on Capitol Hill, he or she is part of a huge staff,” says Lawrence Poos, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “But in the British Parliament, for example, MPs each have a staff of only two or three people. So right away our students are doing substantive work — knocking on constituents’ doors and passing out leaflets, not just opening letters.”

Although CUA participants are exposed to the inner workings of a foreign government, they also immerse themselves in that nation’s culture by sightseeing and taking a variety of classes on site.

“Parliamentary work is only one component of the program,” says Anca Nemoianu, Catholic University's assistant dean for the Study Abroad Programs, who runs the Parliamentary Internship Program. “Many people believe that this program is just for political science students. The fact is that students of all majors can and should participate. This program might not be relevant to your major, but it can fulfill other requirements in the social sciences or humanities.”

For the British internships — one of which lasts throughout the spring semester and the other for six weeks during the summer — participants reside in shared flats in or around London, work 25 hours per week for MPs at the venerable Palace of Westminster and take classes in legislative politics, history and British drama.

In the spring, CUA partners with the University of Leeds, which offers the program’s classes, arranges for housing and sends its own students to Washington, D.C., to intern on Capitol Hill. In the summer, CUA collaborates with the English-Speaking Union, an international educational organization that also sends students to Capitol Hill. During the summer, CUA students live in the same residences as in the spring and work 40 hours a week at Westminster without taking classes.

While in London this summer, Melissa Ku worked for Nigel Waterson, a member of the Conservative Party. Aside from the obligatory intern’s job of opening mail, she researched news reports about senior citizens and pension issues (Waterson is a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee), read and summarized constituents’ petitions for Waterson and traveled to his district of Eastbourne to distribute campaign flyers during his successful re-election bid.

“I had such a great time in England,” says Ku, who has since graduated and now works for a tax litigation firm in Washington, D.C. “ I got to travel all over England and visit Paris. It was truly a rewarding experience.”

Students working at the European Parliament — an arm of the European Union — during the fall or spring semester reside in Louvain, Belgium, at the 400-year-old Irish College (a former Irish Franciscan monastery). They take classes in European history, politics and economics at the Irish College and the Institute for European Affairs. Two days a week they intern at the Brussels branch of the parliament.

“Depending on their interests, students are matched up with different representatives in the parliament,” Nemoianu says. “For example, one CUA student of Hungarian heritage was paired with a representative heavily involved in Eastern European issues.”

For the Irish internship, also available in the fall or spring, students live with Dublin families and work 25 hours a week at the parliament, located in Leinster House, which, according to the Irish Parliament Web site, may have served as the model for the architecture of the U.S. White House. Participants take classes in Irish history, politics and literature at the Institute for Public Administration.

“The fact that we have these internships in place speaks volumes about CUA, the Department of Politics and the Study Abroad Programs,” says Associate Professor of Politics John Kromkowski, who headed the Study Abroad Programs from 1988 to 2003. “We’re at the forefront of political education. We’ve also had British parliamentary ministers tell us that they’ve learned a lot about the American political process from our students.”

Each internship location offers between eight and 12 openings, but only four to six CUA students usually sign up. Chicago’s DePaul University also takes advantage of CUA’s parliamentary program, sending two to three of its students each semester.

Nemoianu hopes to increase the number of participants — particularly the number of interns who aren’t politics majors — by holding informational meetings and encouraging student advisers to promote the Study Abroad Programs.

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