As a discipline, Political Science contains a great deal of variation. Students are trained to think critically and to analyze institutions, organizations and movements with an eye to discovering the systems of relationships in which these phenomena exist, as well as the actor-dynamics that drive behavior within the systems themselves. The practical application of this training outside of academia can take many forms in both the private and public sectors, potentially including any government post, any corporate or non-profit administrative position, any career related to law, etc. In order to help narrow down this often overwhelming array of possibilities, the Political Science Department allows students to complete an internship thesis track as an alternative to a traditional academic thesis. Being possessed of a strong preference for hands-on involvement over abstract research, I quickly decided to choose the internship track.
I began seeking an internship in March of 2013. My notion of what the internship should look like was fairly vague; all I had to go on was a strong and growing affinity for the city of Asheville and a desire to be involved in local politics. In terms of what I could offer to a prospective employer, my experience within the Political Science Department had led me to think of myself as a reasonably competent policy and issues analyst, a perception shared by my thesis advisor, Dr. Dolly Mullen. After a few meetings and conversations to get an idea of what I might be suited for, Dr. Mullen put me in touch with Bruce Mulkey, Patsy Keever’s congressional Campaign Manager and the recently hired Manager of Reelect Bothwell 2013. I sat down with Bruce over a cup of coffee soon after our initial email contact and did my absolute best to convince him of my commitment to the city, of my academic qualifications, and of my capacity for hard work. For his part, Bruce asked me a series of questions designed (I believe) to assess my ideological compatibility with Bothwell and my suitability for the position of Issues Analyst. At the end of the interview, Bruce simply told me “As far as I’m concerned, you’re on the campaign.”
From that point onward, the internship quickly developed a life of its own, far beyond the minimum parameters of my academic requirements. As an Issues Analyst my job was to research any issue of public concern that might become relevant to the campaign and to prepare a number of possible responses to that issue. This task was not particularly demanding, even with a 17-hour course load; as an incumbent, Councilman Bothwell was already pretty well versed on the issues facing the city and had taken clear positions on most of them. However, after a few weeks of preparing research, blog posts and news releases, everything changed, and I was given the additional role of Event Coordinator and was charged with direct supervision of all campaign events, subject to the preferences of the Manager and the candidate himself. It was at this point, in late April of 2013, that the campaign became a dense and rich experience for me, offering opportunities for development in applied political science that simply do not exist in purely academic settings and allowing me to meet hundreds of interesting and inspiring people.
In late August the campaign really got into full swing and I was promoted to the position of Assistant Campaign Manager, my tasks expanding to include advising other staffers and making decisions about the campaign’s strategic direction. The last two months of the race were a sprint, filled with events and press releases, culminating in election night on November 5th, by the end of which Councilman Bothwell had won back his seat by a respectable 15-point margin. I was very proud of the job that the team had accomplished, and proud as well of my own contribution. The internship had given me a space in which to explore and expand my understanding of political science as a discipline and as a means to effect real change in the world. Though most Americans may think of the exercise of politics in a negative light, I truly believe that political engagement represents the only real chance for human unity, and that the way to heal the failures of a flawed system is not to give up on it, but rather to confront those failures with energy and conviction. The hands-on experience I gained with this internship reinforced that belief and gave me a much more concrete idea of what I want to do with my education. I highly recommend that all students interested in applied political science seek out an internship that takes advantage of their skills and aspirations as I did; there is no better way to see where one’s interests truly lie.