Honors student returns from Panetta Institute internship

Sydney Lewis was once a member of The Harry Potter Living Learning Community at Dominican yet, what she experienced as a Panetta Institute for Public Policy Congressional Intern in Washington, D.C. during the fall semester was beyond her wildest dreams.

Lewis, a senior honors student majoring in Political Science and English, spent 11 weeks in the nation’s capital working as a representative for California Congressman Sam Farr and in that time she toured the Pentagon and met Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, attended a rally featuring President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton on the eve of Election Day, and had a random brush with greatness with Speaker of the House John Boehner.

It was more than she expected when she was selected last April to participate in the Panetta Institute internship program. Lewis was one of 24 students appointed by college presidents from the 23 campus California State University system plus Dominican and Santa Clara University. Their selection was based on exemplary scholastic record, interest in politics, and potential for a public service career.

“I really wanted this opportunity and it made me so happy I received it,” Lewis says. “Then to get there and work in such a great office and attend all those briefings and seminars conducted by the Panetta Institute was incredible. I honestly never thought it would happen to me.”

Lewis was impressed by the friendliness and amount of work produced by congressional staffers. Her duties included drafting letters to address the concerns of constituents, training new interns, and giving tours in the Capitol building. During one of those tours, Lewis literally almost bumped into Congressman Boehner. She was talking, walking backward while leading a small tour group toward National Statuary Hall when she intersected a swarm of media followed by a circle of staffers and aides shielding Boehner as he briskly made his way toward his office.

“It didn’t hit me at first that it was him until he turned and walked into his office. I’m thinking, `Oh my goodness. Speaker Boehner! That’s like the first time I’ve seen him and I walk by his office three times a day!” Lewis says. “I was completely blown away.”

However, when she turned around to address her tour, Lewis regained her composure.

“That’s Speaker Boehner,” Lewis says, matter-of-factly. “The visitors were surprised, too. They didn’t expect to see any congressmen there that day.”

Lewis also had occasion to visit the Pentagon. She saw the Pentagon Memorial Quilt commemorating its victims in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

“It was really touching,” Lewis says. “They have a little chapel there where medals were awarded to the families of the victims.”

Panetta Institute interns were guided into a conference room across from where the Secretary of Defense hosted a seminar on the budget. He later posed for individual photos with each intern in his office across the hallway.
Lewis connected with 10 other interns on November 5 and traveled to Virginia for a grassroots political rally for President Obama.  She said she and her fellow interns waited in line for about 12 hours to drive into a parking lot to receive first-come, first-served seating once the gates opened before the rally started at 9:30 p.m. Their dedication was rewarded as the group of interns had seats in the middle of the first row in a section behind campaign volunteers, about 30 yards from where Clinton and Obama addressed the crowd around 11:30 p.m.

“To be able to hear one former president and the current president speak so close to you was so amazing,” Lewis says.
Alison Howard, Chair of Dominican’s Department of Political Science and International Studies, isn’t surprised that Lewis was amazed. She regularly sent emails to her professor chronicling her experience in Washington, D.C.

“Sydney has always been a dedicated, enthusiastic, and conscientious student and we are fortunate to not only have her as a student in the Department but also have had her represent Dominican University and the Department of Political Science and International Studies in Washington, D.C.,” Howard says. “Washington is a very dynamic and exciting place to be and the only way to bring to life the theories and concepts we study is to be there. Having a chance to meet other students who are studying the same subject, observe and participate in the policy-making process, and meet the people who are working hard every day to facilitate the democratic process is an invaluable experience. The Panetta Internship offers an amazing hands-on and practical opportunity for students to be in the hub of activity for any Political Science major.”

The entire Washington, D.C. experience and Panetta Congressional Internship program had a potential career path-changing impact on Lewis. A pre-law student, she has aspirations to someday be a district attorney.

“I’m not against that idea now but I feel so many more doors have been opened,” Lewis says. “I’m looking at going back to Washington and maybe try to be a staffer or work for a non-profit that could help in a more direct way.”

As for present time, Lewis is absorbing the memories and benefits of her Panetta Internship and wishing she could make a repeat performance.

“I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat,” she says. “So far it’s been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I loved it.”