From the Hill to Capitol Hill: Using Interim courses to explore careers
This Interim students in a St. Olaf College practicum toured the West Wing of the White House and Vice President Kamala Harris’s office after hours with Rachel Palermo ’15, the deputy communications director for the Office of the Vice President.
They took a tour of U.S. Rep. Angie Craig’s office and had the opportunity to meet the congresswoman on Capitol Hill thanks to her chief of staff, Nick Coe ’12.
They visited the U.S. Department of Transportation and had an opportunity to meet with Deputy Director of Public Engagement Raffi Freedman-Gurspan ’09.
And they got an inside look at the operations of Voice of America Radio thanks to Asgar Asgarov ’99, a managing editor at the U.S.-funded international broadcaster’s headquarters.
All of these opportunities were possible because of their fellow Oles — alumni who, not so long ago, were St. Olaf students exploring their career paths. These alumni interactions were an integral feature of the faculty-led Interim away course executed in partnership with the Piper Center for Vocation and Career and the Office of Alumni and Parent Relations.
“It was inspiring to learn about the interesting fields they’ve ended up in and the meaningful work they’re doing,” says Grace Klinefelter ’23, a political science and Spanish major. “Meeting alumni was quite helpful in thinking through my future career path, of course, but I also enjoyed getting to know people who had once been in my shoes and talking about their experiences.”
Professor of Political Science Doug Casson led 12 St. Olaf students in the Washington, D.C. Politics and International Relations Practicum, facilitating personal reflection on the ethical implications of one’s career choice during the month of immersive career exploration. Casson says that this focus on moral contemplation could not have been successful without the Ole alumni network.
“The alums were absolutely central to that project — it’s the magic that makes this program work,” Casson says. “They could talk from a very tangible, real-life perspective on why they chose their work, some of the challenges they faced, and why it was worth it for them to face those challenges.”
According to Casson, hundreds of Oles living and working in Washington, D.C. reached out to offer their support to the group. He says alumni were eager to answer student career questions over coffee, show students their workplaces, or simply exchange contact information for future opportunities. Several alumni maintained a role in the course throughout its entirety, acting as mentors for student research projects.
“Students really valued the relationships they could create with alums and the feedback from alums was really similar,” Casson says. “They wanted to give back to the college, they wanted to connect with younger people, they wanted to share their experience and expertise in certain fields.”
In addition to the alumni interactions that were happening daily, students had the opportunity to participate in an organized alumni reception, where they could mingle with St. Olaf alumni in careers of interest and listen to a panel of speakers assembled by Assistant Director of the Piper Center Hector Aguilar Jr. This same event took place in New York City for the New York Art and Dance NOW Interim courses. Several staff members from the Piper Center attended the event, including Senior Associate Director Bryan Shealer.
“The alumni reception was a good example of the community that’s built out there and because it was around the class itself, it was really a highlight,” Shealer says. “It’s a way for all of us to show up together as one college. I think the students genuinely enjoyed themselves.”
St. Olaf has similarly facilitated alumni and student interaction through the Connections Program, taking students on trips to larger cities during academic breaks to meet with alumni in targeted career fields. Though the Piper Center and Alumni and Parent Relations still intend to provide these Connections trips, Shealer says Interim programs are providing a stronger, richer, and more profound experience for students and alums.
“Faculty have such a depth of knowledge, and these programs are able to bridge the gap between these really practical experiences and the curriculum,” Shealer says.
The goal for both Shealer and Casson is the same: to provide students with a newfound confidence about their place in the world after leaving the Hill.
“I think the most important thing for me is that the students could see themselves in these alums, who are now in really prominent positions in D.C.,” Casson says.