Grooming a new generation of leaders

Geoff Schaefer hasn’t forgotten his first visit to Capitol Hill. While interning at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) as a 21-year-old college student, his boss requested that he lobby members of Congress on behalf of an important bill — in spite of the fact he was wearing only jeans, sandals and a polo shirt.

“It was definitely nerve-racking going up to the Hill for the first time,” a bemused Schaefer recalls. But it didn’t take long for him to get used to schmoozing with Washington’s power players. “The second and third day I was up there grabbing business cards, doing the briefings. It was fantastic.”

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Schaefer, who now works as an intelligence analyst for the FBI, readily admits he never would have gotten the opportunity had it not been for the Washington Center, a nonprofit organization that for decades has helped students like him secure internships in the nation’s capital. The company’s mission is to assist young people in developing their careers and shaping them into future leaders, something Schaefer believes the company more than fulfilled in his case.

“Without the Washington Center, I would probably not be sitting at the FBI today,” he said. “Their whole mission is finding you a tailor-made internship. Prior to that, I had a résumé full of a bunch of random noise. It wasn’t going to get me anywhere.”

The Washington Center, founded in 1975 by William M. Burke, has gone on to become one of the most well-respected organizations of its kind in the D.C. Metropolitan area. Current president Michael B. Smith says the organization’s popularity is due in part to the growing popularity of internships.

“There has been an explosion in experiential education,” Smith said. “What has happened … is that people understand for students to get a leg up on their career it is very helpful, while they’re an undergraduate, to test-drive their major.”

For example, according to a 2008 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey, an estimated half of graduating students had done internships. This contrasts sharply with a 1992 survey conducted by Northwestern University, which found that only 17 percent of graduating students had completed internships.

Yet the Washington Center does far more than simply find internships for students. It also offers academic coursework and lectures in an effort to create a truly all-encompassing experience — “not unlike a semester abroad,” Smith says.

Schaefer, who participated in the program in 2007, credits the Washington Center not only for getting him an internship but also for guiding him during his time in D.C. An economics major at West Virginia University, he knew he was interested in the intelligence field but wasn’t sure what path to take. The Washington Center steered him in the right direction.

“I talked to them about my goals,” Schaefer said. “They were incredibly, incredibly helpful.”

Eventually, the center hooked Schaefer up with EPIC, where he not only lobbied but also blogged and did general office duties. It was, in Schaefer’s words, “a very great, very detailed internship experience.”

Katie O’Connell, another Washington Center alum who interned in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs in 2005, recalls how the Washington Center helped give her the chance to experience firsthand the nuts and bolts of foreign-policymaking. And while the internship was hard work, O’Connell was quick to point out that program was a lot of fun as well. She recalls one day in which she volunteered at a daycare center with some of the other Washington Center participants.

“It really was a comprehensive experience of studying and working and living in D.C.,” O’Connell said. “It wasn’t all work. It was a lot of fun, too.”

Schaefer echoes O’Connell’s statement. He has nothing but positive things to say about the Washington Center, and recommends that future participants use the opportunity to gain valuable insight into their prospective career fields.

“For me, without it, I would probably be two or five years behind [in my career],” Schaefer said. “I would really encourage everyone to look at it and take advantage of what they have to offer.”