As a WWS student concentrating in education policy, I was thrilled for the opportunity to spend Reading Period shadowing Massie Ritsch ‘98, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Communications and Outreach at the United States Department of Education. After spending last summer interning on the Hill and gaining a better understanding of our nation’s legislative branch, I was excited to learn about the ins and outs of working for a federal agency and specifically the responsibilities of a communications staff.
One of the best parts of the Princeternship was how accommodating Massie and his staff were about allowing me to sit in on meetings and talk to people whose careers matched my interests. After arriving my first day, I had not even settled into the office for an hour when Massie asked me if I wanted to observe a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the rest of the communication staff. It was such a privilege to sit in on a meeting with the most powerful man in the realm of education and listen to his long-term vision for the Department. Later that day, I went to lunch with Massie where he gave me a run through of the structure of the communications and outreach department and explained more about various types of careers in education. On another day, I met with Steven Hicks, a senior policy analyst that specializes in Early Childhood Education, a topic I have taken an interest to in my studies in education. I learned about some of the administration’s new initiatives for universal early childhood learning, particularly for low income families. As a strong advocate for this policy, I enjoyed hearing the various steps the Department of Education is taking toward improving early learning, and it was inspiring to meet someone so passionate about his job.
I also had the opportunity to work on interesting projects throughout the three days of my Princeternship. The first project I worked on involved taking the pulse of what various media outlets were saying about Obama’s new college ratings and college affordability initiative. The overwhelmingly negative press surrounding the initiative got me thinking about how the new program could negatively affect some of the more unconventional institutions of higher education, particularly if the ratings were to be linked to federal aid. At the end of the Princeternship, I articulated the concerns I had read to Massie, and he graciously answered my questions and explained to me why the department supported the initiative, alleviating many of my doubts. I also conducted research for a couple of Secretary Duncan’s speeches. The most exciting of these for me was researching for Secretary Duncan’s appearance in Nicholas Kristof’s documentary version of Half the Sky, one of the most inspiring books for the movement promoting better education for girls in the developing world, a cause very near to me. Lastly, I had the opportunity to help edit the teacher newsletter that the Department of Education sends out to tens of thousands of teachers each week nationwide. It was interesting to learn more about the editing process for the Department’s communications and see how much time is put into outreach with education stakeholders.
The last day of my Princeternship was by far the highlight. I was lucky enough to attend an event co-hosted by Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder at Frederic Douglas High School where they announced new guidelines for school discipline that only employ exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, as a last resort or when the student poses a safety threat. The school where the event was hosted has witnessed profound improvements in the last few years, much of which can be attributed to its undertaking of alternative forms of school discipline that involve peer mediation and receiving School Improvement Grants from the federal government, another one of the Department’s initiatives. I got to sit in on a roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan, Attorney General Holder and 20 Frederic Douglas students where they talked about how these new disciplinary tactics have transformed their school. The discussion was uplifting and gave me hope that these new guidelines could have a major effect on keeping students on track to obtain their diplomas.
Overall, I could not have imagined a better Princeternship experience, and I am so grateful to Massie and the rest of the Communications and Outreach staff for enabling me to learn so much about the agency and contribute to its exciting initiatives.