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The path to D.C. internships is well traveled for Utah students

Published: Saturday, March 22 2014 7:30 p.m. MDT

Michael Petersen, Utah State University, and Landon Gardiner, University of Utah, chat during their work day at Sen. Orrin Hatch's Washington, D.C. office. The two seniors are interning with the senator for four months.

McKenzie Romero, Deseret News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Unable to sleep, Kylee Geisler fought back nerves as she packed for a semester internship in Washington, D.C.

"I was nervous about what to expect, and if I would be able to handle a big city alone," said Geisler, who graduated from Utah State University just weeks before beginning her internship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Office of Public and International Affairs in D.C.

But now, three months later, Geisler admits the transition was easier than she thought, thanks in part to her experience living with other Utah interns in Utah State's student housing just outside the beltway in Arlington, Va.

"It's been great. We all love Utah and miss the mountains, and just having the common experience of growing up the same we all get along really well," Geisler said. "It's become kind of a fresh, new start."

At any given time there can be nearly 100 interns from Utah universities in the nation's capital, many of which live together in student housing provided by the schools.

Utahns opening doors

One week into her internship with the Ibarra Strategy Group, University of Utah graduate Carmen ValDez was given a daunting assignment: request and retrieve four photos signed by first lady Michelle Obama from the White House.

"I was shocked," said ValDez, recalling her nervous phone call to the White House and walking to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to pick up the photos. "I brought them back, my supervisor opened them up, looked at them, and handed one to me."

ValDez has her signed photo, as well as the official envelope it was delivered in, carefully packed between several layers of books and papers in her suitcase. It represents a valuable lesson her boss, Salt Lake City native Mickey Ibarra, wants all of his interns to learn.

"What I try to convey to the young people who work with me is the power of 'ask,' not just professionally but personally. Dare to ask for what you want and what you need," Ibarra said.

Ibarra's long resume includes leadership roles with the National Education Association, an appointment by President Bill Clinton's administration, work with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and now his own D.C.-based business. It all started, he said, with an internship through BYU's Washington Seminar program, and now he wants to give the same chance to Utah students.

"I've had six wonderful experiences with our interns, and it has been very satisfying to be able to provide them the same opportunity that I was provided so many years ago," Ibarra said. "That internship helped prepare me for opportunities I never could have imagined then."

This is ValDez's third internship but her first in D.C. She has coordinated all of them through the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, which also provides housing for up to 30 U. students interning in D.C. The hands-on experience gained through internships gives the students an advantage, she says.

"It's surprising how well the Hinckley (Institute) does making sure students have a diverse selection and an opportunity to pursue whatever they need to," ValDez said. "It's been great being able to see how lucky we are."

ValDez hopes her internship experience will help her to grow the non-profit group she works with in Utah and as she applies for law school.

Learning on the Hill

When Michael Petersen realized he wanted to shift his career path, his advisers at Utah State University suggested an internship.

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