For ten students, the election won’t just decide their next president — it will also determine their newest neighbor.
Participants in Penn’s Washington Semester Program have spent this fall “studying abroad” domestically by interning and taking classes in Washington, D.C. However, while these students have found themselves at the center of the nation’s political scene, many feel that the last few months in D.C. have been surprisingly calm.
“Contrary to what people would expect … there’s a bit of a lull because people are waiting to see who wins, to know who they’ll be working for,” College junior Omar Al-Kalouti said. “The attention of the candidates is outside D.C., so there’s much less going on.”
Like President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, the students have turned their focus to the swing states. As part of their Presidential Campaigns and Elections seminar, each student has been assigned a swing state to monitor and report on throughout the semester to supplement their election analysis.
“We began the semester by explaining the nuts and bolts of the system from start to finish, and then focused exclusively on the role of the media, campaign finance and voter turnout,” Washington Semester Program Director Kathryn Tenpas, who teaches the seminar, said in an email. “We are all looking forward to our post-election analysis class where we can dissect the results and consider the implications.”
Aside from taking three other political and election-focused classes on Thursdays and Fridays, the students in the program have been putting their knowledge into practice by spending Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays working on Capitol Hill and beyond.
College junior Christi Economy is interning at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit organization that deals with U.S. policy in the Latin America region.
“The election does influence [the region] because Romney and Obama have different views on how to approach Latin-American relations,” she said. “We’ve been watching the election closely and it’s been exciting.”
As an intern for Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) on Capitol Hill, College junior Stephen Purcell has been writing letters and attending briefings on healthcare — and occasionally rubbing elbows with political heavyweights like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
At weekly speaker events, all of the program’s participants have had the chance to meet major D.C. power players. For Purcell, hearing Trevor Potter — the lawyer for Stephen Colbert’s super PAC — give his candid views on campaign finance was a highlight.
The program’s special events and outings complement the students’ “very cohesive” experience of living and taking classes together all under one roof, according to Tenpas. A building owned by the University of California provides both apartment space and classrooms for the students while also housing UC’s government relations office and other universities’ D.C.-based programs.
While this year’s group has a diverse array of interests within the field of government and politics, the ten students share common political ideologies.
“I think everyone is an Obama supporter,” Al-Kalouti said. “There are no conservatives — that’s something that you’d expect from Penn students, who are an overwhelmingly Democratic campus. But there were some Republicans in past semesters.”
In contrast to previous semesters — which typically had classes of about 12 students — this year’s program had a unique draw for prospective applicants because of the presidential election.
“I wanted to come to D.C. anyway, but knowing that it was the 2012 presidential election was a big deal and definitely played a role,” Economy said.
However, the work experience gained during the program has long-term benefits as well.
“In order to get a job on the Hill, roughly 95 percent of people who get those jobs have interned,” Tenpas said. “Some of the students see it as something that will help them get a job when they graduate. But they’re all interested in government — the State Department and international relations or American politics more broadly.”
While the Hill and the rest of D.C. have been rather quiet in recent weeks, the students have noticed an increase in the amount of Obama and Romney memorabilia being sold, an indicator of the strong election buzz that dominates the city’s atmosphere.
“Just being here, you get the feeling that more people have a stake in what’s going on,” Purcell said.
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