Justin Zeigler ’16, Department of Education

Justin-ZeglerMy Princeternship with the Department of Education (ED) was an extremely rewarding and worthwhile experience. My host was Massie Ritsch ’98, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach. Ritsch is one of eight assistants that oversee a division in the Department of Education, and he reports to Secretary Arne Duncan. I was fortunate enough to be in the office during one of the busiest weeks of the year – the week of President Obama’s State of the Union Address. As the Office of Communications and Outreach, Massie’s department was in charge of highlighting and publicizing the education aspects of the President’s Speech.

During my three days at ED, I was involved in several fascinating projects that were both challenging and rewarding. Through one of the Teacher Ambassador Fellows, I helped coordinate a roundtable of elementary school principals by contacting relevant school districts throughout the state of Tennessee and inviting them to participate. After that project, I worked on a presentation designed to demonstrate how the ED’s priorities align with the concerns of national education organizations.

Most interestingly, I had the opportunity to work with Karen Stratman, Director of National Public Engagement for ED, on a report for the White House. The White House wanted to know the different education organizations’ reactions to the President’s State of the Union speech, which placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of education and its capability of building a middle class. Karen provided me with a list of influential education organizations throughout the country, and it was my job to research and compile a report on these reactions. I was able to gain a deeper understanding of different national education organizations, it was also gratifying to know that the work I had done was useful to the White House.

Meeting and speaking with people who are making a difference in education was one of my favorite aspects of this Princeternship. On the second day, I had an opportunity to talk with one of Arne Duncan’s speechwriters, Melissa Apostolides. She is entrusted to write speeches that are both compelling and inspirational for Secretary Duncan to give. She walked me through the process of how she attempts to emulate the Secretary’s voice while writing a speech, showed me some of her favorite speeches, and gave me copies of speeches she had written in the past.

Another fascinating person I had the opportunity to meet was John McLaughlin, head of the Neglected or Delinquent Education Programs for ED. He administers two of the nation’s most successful correctional education programs. He is clearly passionate about his work, and I find it really admirable that he makes a positive difference in the world with his professional career. I also spoke on the phone with John Linton, Director of the Office of Correctional Education for ED. Mr. Linton is incredibly inspiring; he has dedicated his professional career to tackling a social justice issue. We talked for an hour, and afterwards, all I wanted to do was learn more about the problems of our prison system and how education can serve as a remedy. Mr. Linton and Mr. McLaughlin motivated me to spend the entire bus ride home from DC to New York researching correctional education. Our nation has the largest prison population in the world, and education is one of the most important keys to changing that. This is an issue that I want to learn much more about, and I’m going to make sure that I do so.

Education is relevant to a myriad of pressing social issues. I have come to realize how important education policy is for the future of this country. Recently, on a University-sponsored Breakout Trip, I explored urban health care – a topic which seems unrelated to education on the surface. However, as we talked to community partners about urban health, it became clear that poor health is frequently a manifestation of social issues. From poor housing to addiction, these social issues are all tied to a unifying factor: a lack of access to a good education. Education has the capacity to facilitate social movement, transform urban areas, and maintain our nation’s standing as one of the greatest in the world. I see education as the most important component of our country’s future.

Doing a Princeternship at ED was an incredible experience, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend Intersession learning about an important topic from such inspiring people.