Bridging classroom learning with professional paths: A look into Duke’s public policy internship requirement

As part of the requirement for Duke’s public policy major, students participate in an undergraduate internship to apply their policy knowledge and skills in real-world settings. 

To meet the requirement, students must complete a minimum of 350 hours for their sophomore or junior year summer internship. Additionally, students must take at least three of the six core courses to demonstrate their proficiency in policy analysis and enroll in PUBPOL 120, a mandatory non-credit internship course.

“The public policy internship requirement has been around a long time as part of the public policy major to prepare students for careers in leadership, civic engagement and public service,” Nathan Boucher, director of undergraduate studies in the Sanford School of Public Policy, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “The internship requirement is a benefit for our students to have valuable work experience, and our employers tell us they value the internship experience when hiring our students.” 

How do students land internships?

Upon declaring public policy as their major and registering for PUBPOL 120, students are assigned a teaching assistant who guides resume formatting and effective use of Handshake, Duke’s career readiness platform

Students then receive assistance from two undergraduate internship advisors, Suzanne Allen and Elise Goldwasser, who look for possible internship opportunities based on each student’s interests, skills and experiences. 

“What are you thinking about for your first chapter after Duke?” Allen often poses to students in their initial meeting.

Allen believes the internship is just as useful for showing students what they aren’t interested in and guiding them in new directions after the experience. 

One way Sanford provides resources for students in their internship search process is by getting in touch with organizations to hear about potential opportunities. Sanford hosts information sessions and recruiting events featuring employers and government officials working in the policy arena. Sanford also works with the Duke Career Center to help students find internships that fit their profile and area of interest. 

Duke alumni offer another network for students to learn about internship opportunities. 

“You have this incredible gift as a student, which is that you can ask for 20-minute informational interviews and nobody expects anything back,” Allen said. “They don't expect a quid pro quo. They don't expect you to do anything for them. They're in a position where they have knowledge and they just want to help.”

Several Duke programs serve as an alternative to the internship requirement, such as DukeEngage, the Stanback Fellowship Program, the Duke in DC spring semester program, the Hart Leadership Program or two consecutive semesters of Bass Connections.

“I believe that your best chance at getting a job — not necessarily an internship, but a job — is a combination of doing a ton of networking with people and applying to anything you see that you think you're qualified for,” Allen said. “And eventually, somehow those two streams come together and something good happens.”

Student internship experiences

Public policy students have spent their summers interning at Congress, city and local government agencies, advocacy groups, non-profits, human rights organizations and newspapers.

Junior Addie Geitner worked at the Arlington County Urban Planning Department on an urban design project that focused on the regulation of outdoor cafés. She analyzed county databases and geographic information systems to determine where special use permits were assigned to outdoor areas. 

Geitner had initially preferred to spend her summer in Washington to leverage the resources provided by the Duke in DC office and the extensive student network. In the end, she chose Arlington because it was nearby and less competitive than many of the programs in Washington. 

Although Geitner regretted not having taken “more initiative to get … more robust projects,” she enjoyed the “cubicle experience.” She found it “eye-opening” to learn about “the nature of bureaucracy” and what constitutes “best possible practices” in an organization. 

“The advice I received while there from my colleagues was to start private,” she said. “... It's better to actually have a practitioner view of what a developer wants to do, how real estate works, and then go into government so that when you're making policy you actually understand their perspective.”

Students have also pursued internships outside the United States. 

Junior Gus Gress completed his internship at the Museum of Justice in Asunción, Paraguay through DukeEngage Paraguay, combining his interests in Spanish and politics. 

Along with sophomore Emely Arredondo, Gress investigated police surveillance of political dissidents, civilians and former U.S. Ambassadors to Paraguay Robert White and Clyde Taylor during the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship. 

Gress distinguished between learning in the classroom and public policy in the world, applying policy memos to reading “memo-like documents” that recorded human rights abuses under a dictator. 

“This was not a public policy internship, I wasn’t working for a think tank, or I wasn't an intern on the Hill,” he said. “However, I think because this stepped away from public policy as we traditionally think about it … I learned a bit more about what public policy does in the world.” 

How does Duke’s internship requirement compare to other universities?

Several peer institutions offer undergraduate programs in public policy, but only a few of them require internships as part of the curriculum.

Most similar to Duke’s internship requirement is the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs’ cross-cultural or field experience requirement. Students fulfill the requirement before the second semester of their senior year by completing a minimum of 240 hours of service in an underserved community, working a summer internship focused on policy work or spending a semester in a study abroad program. 

Stanford, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Chicago require the completion of a capstone project that enables students to evaluate outcomes and make recommendations on policy-based issues. 

Public policy students at Stanford produce a final report and presentation in response to issues faced by client organizations. 

At the University of Chicago, students either conduct an independent research thesis or complete a project seminar on Chicago-related policies. 

UNC’s capstone pairs students with community partners, including government agencies and non-profits. Students plan impact projects to address the needs of community partners. They are not required but can choose to enroll in PLCY 293, the public policy internship course, where students intern for a minimum of 120 hours in a non-profit, governmental or nongovernmental organization. 

Lucas Lin | University News Editor

Lucas Lin is a Trinity first-year and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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