I, along with many of my fellow college students, spent this year with a lot of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty. For me, a lot of this was rooted in my disrupted attempts to plan for my future. As a first-semester junior, 2020 was supposed to be my year of “high-impact experiences.” I was supposed to have an awesome summer internship, and then I was going to have an even better semester abroad in the fall. Clearly, those plans did not come to fruition. My internship for the summer got canceled, and as the pandemic worsened throughout the spring and summer, it quickly became clear that my semester abroad would not be taking place, either. All of the plans which I had spent the past two years meticulously putting together quickly fell apart in a matter of weeks. These were the plans that should have given me all of those “real-world experiences” that were supposed to prepare me for a job and life outside of college. These were the experiences that were supposed to help me the most with my future. 

Rupe with four of his fellow CHIP interns and Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt on the secretar... Rupe with four of his fellow CHIP interns and Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt on the secretary's office balcony.
Credit: Keith Rupe

Despite the challenges of this year, I am lucky enough to say that I did end up getting a unique version of the high-impact experiences I had hoped for. With the help of Southwestern’s fantastic study abroad office and Center for Career & Professional Development, I was able to put together a plan—and secured funding—that allowed me to take part in the Capitol Hill Internship Program (CHIP) during the fall of 2020. Through CHIP, I was able to live in DC during the fall semester while working an internship of my choice and gaining a full semester’s worth of academic credits. 

Through this program, I interned with Public Citizen, a DC-based nonprofit advocacy and organizing group. My internship worked under Public Citizen’s Protecting Democracy program, which worked on topics related to the 2020 presidential election. My responsibilities included recruiting poll workers, recruiting election monitors, informing voters of their various voting options, helping eligible voters register to vote, and ensuring that in-person election sites were safe and operating efficiently. Because of the pandemic, all of these responsibilities had to be done virtually. This meant that most of my daily work involved networking online over Zoom, email, phone calls, text, or social media. This work looked different depending on the day, but my general tasks were to spread important information about the election, voter registration, and voting in general to as many people as I could. It turns out you can still do a lot with the right group and a half-decent Wi-Fi signal. 

Through my internship, I was able to practice public organizing at its highest level. I got firsthand experience with political organizing and navigating our electoral systems. Considering that this election saw the highest voter turnout on record, it seems like my work actually made an impact (however minimal). This internship also reminded me there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes of an election, from the bureaucratic systems that allow them to function to the massive organizing efforts that help people vote and participate in elections. This complexity certainly has its problems, but it also means that there are a lot of different ways to get involved with the democratic process. The idea that the only thing the average citizen can do to directly participate in democracy is vote is so incredibly far from the truth. Voting, going to protests, or posting on your social media are great, but they are in no way the only things you can do to get involved. You can get involved with organizing groups, you can volunteer for phone banks, you can work with an advocacy group on an issue you’re passionate about, or you can even run for office yourself. There are a lot of opportunities to make a difference, and there are a lot of people who are interested in doing that work with you. 

Outside of my internship, simply living in DC for this time and taking classes through CHIP has also given me some truly incredible experiences. Through my classes here, I have made connections and had conversations with individuals I would have never met otherwise. This list includes Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, multiple high-ranking officials at the National Security Agency, a water lobbyist, several environmental and water-rights consultants, and the director of a hydroelectric turbine manufacturer. As a political science and environmental studies double major with an interest in public service and the field of environmental policy, these connections are invaluable to me. Through my conversations with these individuals, I have found that there are innumerable opportunities for jobs and careers in the areas I am interested in. Thanks to my time in DC, I now have connections and insights on those opportunities. 

My time in DC has shown me that I (and every other young college student like me) have options for the future. I started this semester with a lot of personal uncertainties: uncertainty about the year, my health, my education, my future. I did not know how this semester would turn out, or even that I would get anything from it. I took a chance coming to DC this semester, and looking back now, it was worth it. I was able to gain an internship that allowed me to make a difference in the 2020 presidential election. I was also able to make incredible connections with individuals who have given me great advice, helped me find my interests and passions, and shown me that there are plenty of opportunities to pursue those passions. This semester has shown me that I can make a difference and that I have options among the ways I can make that difference. In a year as chaotic as 2020, that realization is very comforting. It is a realization that gives me a bit more hope and excitement for the future. I hope other students can come to this realization as well, in their own way and through their own experiences.