Washington D.C. Semester in International Affairs
Bascom Hall may be almost 850 miles from the U.S. Capitol, but an innovative UW program is aiming to bring Madison and Washington closer together, one semester at a time.
The brainchild of Beltway-based alumni, the Washington D.C. Semester in International Affairs operates like an apprenticeship in diplomacy. Each fall, the program sends a rigorously selected group of undergraduate students to work as interns at organizations and agencies related to international affairs.
Anthony Carroll MA’80, vice president at Manchester Trade Ltd., can recall the exact day the idea for the program was born: October 11, 2002. The U.S. Senate had just voted to authorize military force in Iraq, and Carroll was at an event with diplomats and UW alumni. As the group rehashed the day’s events, the conversation evolved to a question of how to get their alma mater involved.
“I recognized that this marvelous land-grant university, with all its capacity, could really be a driver of good in the world,” Carroll says. “I thought it would be great to try to strengthen the UW’s presence here.”
The idea gathered momentum with a core group of alumni, and the Division of International Studies agreed to coordinate the academic end. A decade later, the program has grown from the inaugural class of five students to a cohort of around twelve.
Though some student participants in the program have had experience traveling or volunteering abroad, many have not.
“We try to have a good mix of students in the program, especially some who haven’t been out of the state much before,” says Leon Weintraub PhD’73, a retired diplomat who coordinates the program on the ground in D.C. “When you’re on campus, even with the connections Madison has, it’s tough to know or imagine the possibilities out there.”
Weintraub and Cynthia Williams PhD’94, the program’s campus director, work with students to match them with internships at a wide range of government agencies, nonprofits, and think tanks. Among the many organizations that have hosted UW interns are Amnesty International, the Peace Corps, the U.S. Department of State, the United Nations, and Voice of America.
Catching Potomac fever
One side effect of the program is that some students develop an unshakeable case of “Potomac fever.” For example, Alex Beck x’15, who interned at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in fall 2013, hopes to move to D.C. after graduation.
“[The] most interesting thing I learned [was] how human some of the world’s foremost intellectuals and politicians really are,” he says. “Political work in D.C. is highly engaging, and one cannot help but feel that their contribution, in one way or another, helps to forward a policy or initiative aimed at helping the people and government of the United States.”
Along with the internship, students enroll in two seminars that connect international theories to the field. One seminar brings in alumni speakers working in international relations, and the second requires students to write papers linking the work they’re doing as interns to broader theories about international relations. Students also complete an in-depth research project about their host organization.
“One of our students came up with a wonderful quotation,” Weintraub says: “ ‘In Madison, we study international affairs. In Washington, we live it.’ ”