As the halls of the Capitol bustle with the energy of a new legislative session, university students from around the state learning about government firsthand through the Alaska Universities Legislative Internship Program.
Seven students from the University of Alaska Southeast, Alaska Pacific University and other schools are participating in the program, which provides 12 hours of university credits, a stipend and the experience of working on a daily basis with an elected official.
"This is an academic program," said UAS Chancellor John Pugh. "It's an internship too, but the real part of the academic program is to learn about the Legislature, about state government, about the interaction between the branches of government, and about how some other states may work compared to (Alaska)."
Students are required to work a minimum of 30 hours a week with their legislator, as well as attend a seminar class each Saturday taught by Pugh and UAS political science Professor Clive Thomas.
"I think it's a great mixture of theoretical learning and experiential learning," said Pugh.
"The seminar goes along with it so that they are looking at things through both an academic and a practical perspective," said Thomas.
The program began during the 1987-88 academic year when Thomas went to Pugh, then UAS dean of arts and sciences, with the idea of providing students with greater exposure to the state government. Since its inception, 132 students have gone through the program.
"By my calculations between 45 and 50 people have gone back and worked in the Legislature, so it can be a steppingstone for that," said Thomas.
One graduate of the program is Rep. Mary Kapsner, a Bethel Democrat who interned in 1996.
"The Legislative Internship Program really solidified in my mind that I did want to run for office," said Kapsner. "I realized that I am very passionate about state politics. I learned that the state is small enough that single people can make a difference."
UAS student Tracy Wendt, who is interning for Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, said she hopes to learn the fundamentals of Alaska politics.
"When it came down to it, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get an understanding of the Legislature, the process, and the inner workings of it all," she said.
Wendt said the program is important for Alaska's universities as well as the Legislature.
"It brings the university one-on-one with the Legislature, which is very important for them, but it also brings the university closer to the community," she said. "It keeps university students closer in touch with what's going on, and I think that is very important."
Kerttula said she believes students should be involved in the legislative process.
"It's really important to have students, and college students, in the building," she said. "Not only are they bright and energetic, they have good ideas, and they remind people all the time why we're here, why we're doing this. They're knowledgeable, they have all kinds of different areas of knowledge and expertise, and they really help move the system."
Kerttula said she has enjoyed working with Wendt because of the fresh perspective she provides.
"It's really rewarding personally to work with students," said Kerttula. "It's not only rewarding, it pushes me and teaches me things. It's also my way of showing my commitment to students and also to education in Alaska."
Wendt said her first month working in the Legislature has been a delightful as well as demanding experience.
"The program is what you make of it," said Wendt. "And even though the requirements are 30 hours a week, my own personal requirement is to get the most out of the experience. And in order to do that, I really find that I am putting in more hours than what the minimum requirement is."
UAS chancellor Pugh said the program deals with statewide issues and helps broaden students' understanding and knowledge about the state and its people.
"I think in the end it produces individuals who are much more committed to making a difference in Alaska," he said. "Whether it's to be a staffer in the Legislature, running for the Legislature, or to just be active in your community, it's hard to come out of this program and not be an active, committed citizen of Alaska."
Eric Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.