My experience at the Washington Internship for Students of Engineering

This past summer, I and 13 other engineering students from across the country participated in the Washington Internship for Students of Engineering Program, a technology policy program in which each student works on an issue of their choice toward a published policy paper. The program is sponsored by the engineering organizations IEEE, AICHE, ANS, ASHRAE, ASME, ASTM, and SAE.

The program was a blast, as was being in Washington, DC, during one of the most consequential summers in government in recent history — members of our intern group were outside the Supreme Court when gay marriage was legalized across the country and when the Affordable Care Act was upheld, heard speeches on the House Floor before votes on the Trans Pacific Partnership, and saw President Obama lobby Congressmen and Congresswomen at the Congressional Baseball Game. We attended bill markups and saw presidential candidates. And we also did some work occasionally.

There are numerous opportunities available in DC during the summer, but the W.I.S.E. program stands out in several key ways:

  • It’s completely open ended. Each intern chooses his or her own policy area, and we are responsible for setting up our own meetings with policymakers, staff members, agency employees, think tanks, and interest groups. None of our time is spent doing typical DC intern work such as making coffee or sorting mail. Rather, we have the opportunity to customize our internship based on our interests and prior experiences. As an undergraduate, I worked on wireless communications modeling problems and will potentially stay in the same field as a graduate student starting in the Fall. Thus, I chose to write about a policy issue currently facing the FCC. During my time here, I met with senior officials at the FCC and officials at companies such as Qualcomm and the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN committee. I also managed to submit a filing at the FCC highlighting new issues uncovered through my research and analysis. IEEE connected me with mentors who played large roles at the FCC and wireless policy in the past, and they provided insights not available elsewhere. The experience both taught me some of realities and tradeoffs within wireless policy and allowed me to contribute in a meaningful way.
  • We met some amazing people. In addition to providing us an avenue to explore our policy interests, the program arranged meetings with top policymakers and other “DC Folk.” As a group, we met with a Senator, a leader at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a Deputy Undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, a science and technology leader at the State Department, an Assistant Director at the National Science Foundation, a leading patent lawyer, and several lobbyists, among others. Each meeting gave us an opportunity to discuss critical technology policy issues with the experts, such as technological progress and its economic impacts, the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository, and national cybersecurity (a week after the OPM hack). We also used these meetings as networking opportunities, learning about career opportunities in DC and meeting those who can help us reach our goals.
  • It’s for engineers. Engineers are a tiny minority in DC, even in heavily technical policy areas, and most opportunities for engineers in DC are only available to those with a PhD. As engineering students, we have much to learn about how policy is made, but we also have insights not available to even the extremely intelligent lawyers who work on these issues every day. As science and technology problems (automation, energy, cybersecurity, and climate change, for example) increasingly dominate public debate, it is critical that those with technical backgrounds engage with policymakers to design effective solutions. Many of us had meetings where we were treated as the experts due to our backgrounds. I met with a Congressional Legislative Director who just the day before held a meeting with all the primary stakeholders of my issue. Instead of me asking questions, much of the meeting was spent with me sharing my views and explaining some of the technical components of the debate.
  • The intern group is diverse and accomplished. DC is said to be the only place in the United States where you will find at least one person from every district, nook, and cranny in the country. This year’s intern class is a microcosm of that statement, in more ways than just geographic. The intern class includes those about to start engineering jobs and grad school, those with patents and their own startups, and those who are well-travelled and with much work experience. It includes people from all over the political spectrum and the country, leading to numerous engaging discussions about policy. In an age when it’s possible to only spend time with those like you, the intern class proved to me the benefits of discussing issues with those who are not.
  • It’s paid. Paid internships where interns do meaningful work have become the norm in engineering. That’s not true in policy. In a town where most internships are unpaid, and in which summer housing is expensive, W.I.S.E provides both free housing and a stipend. Unpaid internships decrease diversity and restrict opportunities to those who can afford it, and it’s nice to see the sponsors of the program combat that trend.

Overall, I have had a wonderful experience. A huge shoutout to Dr. Lutz, Erica Wissolik, Linda Stanley, Russell Harrison, Mark Ames, Melissa Carl, Jim Olshefsky, and the rest of the IEEE and WISE teams for making this summer possible.