My three-day Princeternship at the U.S. Department of Education was an incredibly rewarding experience. My host, Massie Ritsch ’98, is the Acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Communications and Outreach. Mr. Ritsch and his assistant, Vanessa McKinney, prepared a schedule tailored to my interests. I am especially concerned with issues relating to race and the African American community, so I spent a lot of time in the Office for Civil Rights and met with the leaders of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Mr. Ritsch provided me with an invaluable introduction to the responsibilities of offices across the department. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in the Princeternship program!
The first thing I noticed upon entering the department was its lively, friendly environment. Even though I stayed for such a short period of time, I felt very welcomed.
My day began at 8:30 am with a Senior Staff Scheduling and Communications meeting. It was eye-opening to hear the leaders in the Office of Communications and Outreach review Secretary Arne Duncan’s schedule and discuss issues of importance to the department in the month of January. My background knowledge from my participation in Students for Education Reform and the Freshman Seminar, “The Dreamkeepers: Education Reform and the Urban Teaching Experience,” benefited me in that I was familiar with much that was discussed, including some of the more “wonky” concepts.
I then sat in on Mr. Ritsch’s meeting with a smaller group of individuals in the Office of Communications and Outreach for their weekly check-in. During the meeting, they touched on the department’s four main themes for President Obama’s second term: early learning, ensuring that the money allotted to K-12 education is used most effectively, Career and Technical Education, and college affordability.
Over lunch, Mr. Ritsch gave me an overview of the Department of Education and what specifically happens within the Office of Communications and Outreach. We talked about his involvement at Princeton, his career path and what led him to the Department of Education, as well as my interests and career goals.
I then met with Andrew Amore, Special Assistant in the Office for Civil Rights. He introduced me to the work that the office does. The Office for Civil Rights has 600 employees and is the second largest office to the Federal Student Aid office. The office focuses 20 percent of its time on policy issues and the other 80 percent on enforcement of Title VI (protection from discrimination based on race), Title IX (protection from discrimination based on sex) and Section 504 (protection from discrimination based on disability status). Mr. Amore told me about how committed President Obama and Secretary Duncan are to the Office for Civil Rights. Before this administration, the office was located in a building outside of the main Department of Education headquarters. I was thrilled to learn about the renewed importance of the office within the department!
Mr. Amore also offered me hands-on experience. Over the course of my Princeternship, I helped to organize the civil rights stakeholder database: a list of 450 individuals, organizations and foundations whose perspectives are important to the work of the office. It was exciting for me to recognize several of the organizations and individuals on the list.
Next, I sat in on a meeting with Mr. Ritsch and the videographers of the “School Days” project, which provides monthly video updates on what is going on in the department. I was not familiar with this aspect of the department’s outreach, so it was neat to hear about how the Department of Education works to share its efforts with the general public.
I ended my day by meeting with Senior Counselor Robert Kim and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy John DiPaolo within the Office for Civil Rights. They told me more about the office’s law enforcement strategies and the specific cases that they have been involved in. During my meeting with Mr. Kim, I realized that I had heard him speak at the Princeton Prize in Race Relations Symposium the previous spring. It was exciting to reconnect!
My day began with an education policy briefing on ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1956) flexibility, entitled “How ED is Helping States Move Beyond NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001).” The department has offered states the opportunity to apply for flexibility surrounding specific requirements of NCLB “in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive State-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.” It was great to be able to learn more about a specific policy and states’ implementation efforts; what I gained from this presentation was useful during the remainder of my Princeternship.
After lunch, I attended a Communications, Policy and Legislative Affairs meeting. It was eye-opening to see officials in the three offices share their ideas and discuss Secretary Duncan’s schedule from different perspectives.
My day ended with an unexpected but exciting encounter with the Secretary himself! I attended a short speechwriting meeting in Secretary Duncan’s office with one of his assistants and a speechwriter. It was evident from the short amount of time that I spent with Secretary Duncan that he is incredibly dedicated to ensuring that students across the country receive the equal education that they deserve. I am thrilled to say that I was able to take a picture with him, too!
I began my day with a meeting with Laurie Calvert, the Teacher Liaison. I learned about her outreach to teachers and the work she does to ensure that the voices of teachers are heard in the department. Then, I met with Director of Digital Engagement, Cameron Brenchley. He spoke with me about his job operating the department’s Twitter account and Facebook page, and offered my advice about how to effectively use social media.
Next, I spoke with De’Rell Bonner and Sedika Franklin about the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the new initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. It was exciting for me to hear about the work of the department in ensuring that the needs of the African American community are met. I look forward to seeing the progress of the new initiative! Finally, I met with Sam Ryan, Regional and Youth Outreach Associate to learn more about the department’s youth engagement work. The youth outreach program is new to the department; as a student, I was glad to hear that the government values the student perspective.
I am so thankful to have been able to participate in the Princeternship at the Department of Education, as it opened my eyes to education from the government’s perspective and helped me to reaffirm my career goals. Interacting with the leaders in the Department of Education made government service much more tangible for me. It was great to be able to attend meetings in offices that matched my interests and I enjoyed hearing of the variety of backgrounds of those in the department. Some had taught before being appointed to their positions, while others had worked for President Obama’s campaign. Given that I volunteered for the 2012 campaign, I was excited to hear that individuals do not have to follow one specific track to attain a position in the department.
I was not previously familiar with the extent of the department’s outreach; how it shares information with particular communities and ensures that the voices of these communities are heard. I definitely feel that I now have a better understanding of how the department as a whole functions – and a better idea of the career path I want to pursue. I am so grateful to have been able to participate in the Princeternship program. Thank you to Mr. Ritsch and all of the other leaders at the Department of Education for speaking with me about their experiences and to Career Services for providing me with this incredible opportunity.
Update: Hannah informed us that she is now a summer intern in the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education and asked us to share this with readers of her blog.