For college students, Washington, D.C., is far from academic as they learn the nitty-gritty of government.
The pizza boxes are stacked two-deep as students settle into deep leather couches. It's a typical college scene of jeans and T-shirts. Except that some students still sport their dress shirts, having just returned from their jobs on and off Capitol Hill at 7:30 p.m.
Lesson No. 1: The Washington rat race involves some pretty long hours.
"You can almost sense it wherever you go, that people are vying for different things," said Bill Brinkman, 19, a Carleton College intern in the office of Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. "It happens in Congress. People are vying for power. It happens all over the place."
Brinkman is part of Carleton's 12th Washington class, a program for students who want to get a firsthand feel for the political swamp along the Potomac River. For students steeped in the theories of the Founding Fathers, the on-the-ground reality can be jarring.
"There are some who take to Washington and see it as a magnet for opportunities, and some who get a little jaded," said Carleton political science Prof. Steven Schier, Brinkman's program director and tour guide to power.
Lesson No. 2: As President Harry Truman once said, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
"Most will like it, but some say, 'Well, I'm glad I did it, but it's not for me,'" Schier said.
Here in this Minnesota bubble of Carleton students there's a short break from all that. "I enjoy coming back to our group, and to our apartment," said Brinkman, one of 19 students who came to Washington this semester under the Carleton program.
Dreams of someday running for Congress lured Brinkman, of Wheaton, Ill., who is studying economics and political science. "I wanted to know how the machine works, how things get done," he said.
Slipping into the machine was easy: Sessions is a relative. While most of the interns in Sessions' office are from the congressman's home district in Texas, Brinkman's family tree helped land him a job.
Lesson No. 3: Sometimes, it's who you know.
"A lot of things in D.C. are based on connections, and that was one of them," Brinkman said.
Not that connections get you out of grunt work. Brinkman spends most of his time with constituent mail. All those letters, e-mails and faxes have given him a disheartening primer on power in Washington. Every day, he takes the concerns of individual constituents and tucks them into piles to be answered by form letter.
"When you get 500 faxes ... a single fax or a single letter makes remarkably little difference," he said.
Personal politics and a trip to China brought Olivia Killeen, 21, of Mendota Heights an internship with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with an Asian studies institute. Her research project on Chinese investments will be used in congressional testimony this month.
Killeen has been learning about things outside her field of research, too.
Lesson No. 4: Washington is more polarized than ever.
"At Carleton I was always the conservative," Killeen said. "Here, I feel like the other interns must be whispering about me, 'There's that liberal girl.'
"Sometimes I'll try to argue a point with them, and they'll just assume I don't understand what they're talking about," she said. "It's a little frustrating."
She dislikes networking in Washington.
"There's a superficiality that I encounter here that I don't really encounter at home or at Carleton," Killeen said. "I kind of feel like oftentimes people aren't here for the betterment of the country or society -- maybe that's naive of me -- but for their own benefit."
Eight weeks into the program, Brooke Davis, 20, is enthralled with her job at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. "The past few days at the office have been so amazing," she said, gushing about an afternoon she spent with members of a Pakistani madrassa.
Her only complaint about her office is the same one she has about the city at large.
Lesson No. 5: It can be lonely at the top.
"No one's interested in small talk like they were back in Northfield," said Davis, who is from Midlothian, Va. "That's something I miss about living in smaller towns."
When lunchtime rolled around at her office, Davis' co-workers ate at their desks or slipped out for a solo bite to eat.
Washington is a town that admires initiative. So Davis took what little power she had, and asked a few co-workers to grab lunch with her one day.
Now, she reports, everyone eats lunch together.
Hayley Tsukayama is an intern at the Star Tribune's Washington bureau.
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