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McKenzie Romero, Deseret News
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.
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. It's been great being able to see how lucky we are. —University of Utah graduate Carmen ValDez

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.

"I've had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what I'd like to do in the future," said Petersen, who previously had been pursuing a job teaching history. "I'm not settled yet, but there are glimpses."

Despite his plans to change careers, Petersen remains a history buff, and his favorite part of his internship with Sen. Orrin Hatch is giving tours of the U.S. Capitol to visiting Utahns.

"Just to see their faces as they see the Rotunda, different places where important historical events have taken place, has been something eye-opening," Petersen said. "People have asked my why I'm a history major. They say, 'It's so boring.' But as we go through the Capitol building … to see their eyes open, even in youth, has been a fun opportunity."

In addition to helping with tours, U. student Landon Gardiner is tasked with helping research and answer healthcare questions from Hatch's constituents. He calls this internship, his third, a powerful learning experience.

"It's been the high point of my college career," said Gardiner, a political science and international studies major from Iowa. "Learning more not only about the Capitol, but of the processes that go on inside the Capitol and everything that happens here on Capitol Hill."

Upstairs from Hatch's office, Jorge Espinoza works in Sen. Mike Lee's office. After pursuing law and constitutional studies at USU, Espinoza especially enjoys opportunities to research legislation or attend hearings on the Hill.

"It's so cool knowing that you are participating in things that could affect millions of people, and you are contributing to the great experiment of the American dream," said Espinoza, grinning widely as he sat in Lee's personal office. "It's kind of like a dream come true."

Espinoza is especially pleased to intern with Lee, a constitutional mentor who takes time getting to know the students who work with him. He noted that his picture will soon be featured on a wall near Lee's office that has been dedicated to photos of the senator with his interns.

With one month left in his internship, Petersen is preparing a flood of job applications for positions back home as well as in D.C., which he hopes to bolster with a letter of recommendation from Hatch's office.

"This has been a great, hands-on experience where I've been able to be a team player in what goes on here on the Hill," Petersen said. "Even if it doesn't lead to a job opportunity out here in D.C., it's been an experience I'll never forget, being out here and being a part of something bigger than I may have been able to be part of in Logan, Utah."

The Utah connection

Geisler's previous apprehension at living in D.C. is nearly forgotten. She now goes out of her way to meet new people, chatting with strangers on the metro or reaching out to the people she is introduced to through work.

Much of that confidence has come through the built-in support network she found living in USU's intern housing, which accepts about 20 students from several Utah schools, and has helped her settle into living in a new place.

Like many of the people she works with, the Idaho native has felt the pull of life in the beltway. Geisler is currently testing the waters in the job market, with a few applications pending both back at home and in D.C.

"I feel like a lot of the people who come out here stay out here," she said. "A lot of the people in my office are from Utah, and they just fell in love with it here and ended up staying."

The LDS Office of Public and International Affairs where Geisler works is located in the Barlow Center, which houses up to 45 students participating in BYU's Washington Seminar, and helps co-sponsor the center's Faith and Public Service speaker series. She stayed on-hand after finishing work last week to attend the series' latest presenter, Tomicah Tillman, U.S. State Department senior adviser for civil society and emerging democracy.

Among the crowd was BYU student and Orem resident Greer Bates, who lives at the Barlow Center and hurried down for the presentation after sharing a snack with roommates in the students' shared kitchen. Bates appreciates the sense of security she gets from living with other BYU students.

"It's nice to know that there are people I feel like I can trust to have the same standards that I do," said Bates. "I don't have to worry about roommates bringing their boyfriends into the room or anything like that. It's been a big relief."

Bates visited Washington, D.C. as a child and saw an internship as the perfect opportunity to go back. She is interning with the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, where she helps with questions and research requests sent in to the museum. Through her work she stumbled upon a unique opportunity to share about Utah and her LDS faith.

"The biggest research project I have been doing this whole time is about Joseph Smith because someone emailed in a question about Joseph Smith and my supervisor thought, 'Hey, we have this Mormon girl, we'll assign it to her,'" Bates said. "We figured out that the museum didn't have that many records about Joseph Smith, and the records it had were pretty sparse, so she assigned me to update the records."

With less than a month left in their internships, Bates and her roommate have achieved their goal of visiting all the Smithsonian museums.

Bates' goal is to eventually teach about the history of the Holocaust. She is investigating graduate schools where she can continue her specific study track, and believes the research and archival skills she has honed will prove invaluable.

Offering a tip for Utah students who may be considering internships, Bates' advice is simple.

"They're not as intimidating as they seem. You might not know very much going into it, but there are a lot of people and a lot of resources to help get you through," she said.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: McKenzieRomero