Public health during a global pandemic. Voting rights after claims of election fraud. Ethical standards in a polarized Congress.
Those are among the timely issues in which Cornell in Washington students are immersed this semester – the program’s first as part of the new Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy – through internships at key federal agencies.
“This is such a momentous time in our nation’s history,” said Komala Anupindi ’23, a health care policy major in the College of Human Ecology who is interning at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “People are realizing how important public health is, and we might be at a time that we can finally address some of the barriers.”
Anupindi, of Boulder, Colorado, is one of 17 undergraduates completing Cornell in Washington internships and coursework this fall. About twice as many are expected for the spring semester, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions ease.
The students gain practical experience interning for 20-25 hours each week at federal agencies and elsewhere – this year including the office of U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, J.D. ’89, the assistant speaker of the House, and the D.C. Public Defender Service. Evening courses taught by D.C. subject matter experts and visits to world-class museums complement the internships.
The 41-year-old program’s transition to the Cornell Brooks School made perfect sense, providing an important presence in the nation’s capital, said its director, John Cawley, a professor in the Cornell Brooks School and in the Department of Economics. The program’s role will grow as the school develops a new public policy major that includes an experiential learning requirement.
“College students today are extremely aware of the importance of government decisions in their lives,” Cawley said. “The program provides them an opportunity to better understand our nation’s history and our society, and to get a head start on their future career.”
This fall, some internships are substantially in-person, some hybrid and others primarily virtual, just one of the changes students have navigated in the months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, which remains closed to visitors.
“The country and the world are seeing a confluence of unusual situations and events,” said David Silbey, the program’s associate director. “Here in D.C., you can actually see and engage directly with people who are working on those issues.”
Tanya Aggarwal ’22, an intern in the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said she’d been inspired to hear the assistant attorney general for the division, Kristen Clarke, discuss the fundamental importance of protecting Americans’ right to vote.
“I feel like the work is very important, and we really are making an impact,” said Aggarwal, a government major in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Aggarwal said it’s been fascinating to see how different states have responded to changes in voting practices prompted by the pandemic. The DOJ in recent months has filed lawsuits against Georgia and Texas, claiming new election laws passed there are discriminatory.
At the Office of Congressional Ethics in the U.S. House of Representatives, Liz Jackson ’22 has participated in several interviews of members of Congress by attorneys reviewing misconduct allegations. She’s been encouraged to ask questions.
“I can’t talk about the details, but it’s really interesting to see that process firsthand,” said Jackson, a government major (A&S) and native of Houston, Texas, who worked as a military paralegal and court reporter during four years of active-duty service in the Marines.
The House Committee on Ethics, to which the independent, nonpartisan office may refer its findings, has recently released reports detailing alleged violations of financial rules by four representatives.
Jackson is writing a compendium of more than 40 investigations the Office of Congressional Ethics has completed since its establishment in 2008, highlighting precedents they set. She’s also contributed preliminary investigative work using public records.
Anupindi also is doing research, following bills and watching hearings related to the CDC’s work. It can be discouraging, she said, to see highly partisan tweets and statements by elected officials about an agency dedicated to improving public health. But she’s been encouraged by the heightened attention she’s seen in Congress to health equity and addressing systemic disparities highlighted by the pandemic.
“I’m excited to see health care change in America, and I think it will,” Anupindi said. “It can be done if people have hope, and also the drive to get it done.”