A Decade of Learning in the Heart of the Nation

This spring marks 10 years since the first participants in the Carnegie Mellon University Washington Semester Program (CMU/WSP) made Washington, D.C., their classroom.

A decade later, students still enjoy breathtaking views of the Supreme Court while attending classes on the fifth floor of the only nongovernmental building on Capitol Hill. Sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology (CMIST), the program continues to provide opportunities for any full-time undergraduate at the university to take courses while simultaneously gaining professional experience in the heart of the nation.

Participants in the program have completed internships at the Executive Office of the President, the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the Supreme Court, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Department of Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Bar Association and Capitol Hill, to name a few.

"It’s a program unlike any other that CMU offers. You’re in the heart of Washington, D.C.," said James Summers, who participated in CMU/WSP in fall 2020. "You get to create memories and experiences that you won’t have the opportunity to do with any other program."

Though the structure of the program has remained relatively unchanged since its inception, Emily Half , CMIST’s deputy director for academic affairs who has been advising CMU/WSP participants since the program’s beginning, noted two developments over the past decade.

Most recently, CMU/WSP modified course offerings to enable students to strike a better balance between internships, coursework and exploring all that Washington has to offer. The updated curriculum goes into effect in fall 2024, and students who complete the coursework in Washington continue to be well-positioned to earn a minor in politics and public policy.

Also, to help participants make connections between their current roles as students and who they want to be in the workforce after graduation, a new mini course, Tomorrow’s Professionals , was introduced in the fall of 2022. Students take the course prior to their arrival in the nation’s capital, setting them up for success from the first day of their internship.

Created and taught by Haleigh Bartos , CMIST associate professor of the practice, the course covers professional etiquette, professional expectations and personal branding.

"There are two sides to professionalism," said Bartos. "You need the skill set to do the actual job, and then you also need the professional skill set to understand and navigate the operating environment."

While the Washington Semester Program often helps students confirm their career goals, it also gives them the chance to identify new interests. Edward Wojciechowski, a CMU/WSP participant in the very first cohort in spring 2014, thought he wanted to pursue a career in international relations and described his internship at the Press and Communication Office of the Embassy of France as "an enriching, invaluable experience." Nonetheless, by the end of the semester, he had decided that he wanted to pursue a different career path. Wojciechowski now works as an international admissions coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh.

"While I didn’t end up working in international relations, I learned valuable skills that I could use in any career," he said.

Washington Program Manager Ashley Barnes witnesses first-hand the transformative power of gaining these new skills in a city full of professional opportunities.

"Post CMU/WSP, students suddenly have the momentum to seek additional internship opportunities and have a clearer direction of what kind of career they want to have in the future," Barnes said.

"WSP is really, really good for exposing you to what it is actually like to be a working professional in the district," Robert Summers-Berger said. He added, "If you really want to learn what it’s like to be a policy professional in the area, there is really no substitute."

In addition to on-the-job training, students have multiple opportunities to make meaningful connections by meeting people through their internships, at D.C. events and through the CMU/WSP alumni network. The semester in Washington is designed to foster both professional and personal growth, and the experience also encourages camaraderie among the cohort.

Wojciechowski looks back fondly on how close his group became over the course of the semester. "It was a very supportive cohort," he said.

Ten years later, the CMU/WSP continues to afford the unique opportunity to test drive a career in the nation’s capital prior to graduation. Whether or not they ultimately choose to return to the nation’s capital, the consensus from our students is that the experience is incredibly valuable.

"Washington, D.C., has left an indelible mark on my education and growth as a person," said Zoe Kramer, who participated in fall 2023. "This is without a doubt the best semester of my college career."

To learn more about the Washington Semester Program and the types of internships available, contact Washington Program Manager Ashley Barnes.

The spring 2014 inaugural cohort of CMU’s Washington Semester Program gathers at the National Security Agency. From left to right: Emily LaRosa;,Latif Elam, Megan Steinmetz, Chloe Hawker, Edward Wojciechowski, and Molly Shanley.

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