As friends flew to Cancun and California for spring break, University of Minnesota junior Diana Vega settled in to a committee hearing marathon at the State Capitol.
She didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Vega is one of 25 college undergraduates who are deploying at the Legislature this spring as part of Capitol Pathways, a new internship program. It matches students of color, including many immigrants, with lobbyist firms, state agencies and nonprofits that work on public policy. An initiative of the nonprofit Citizens League and some of its policy partners, the program seeks to inject some diversity at the Legislature, where fewer than a dozen of about 200 lawmakers are minority members.
“We became increasingly frustrated that as the state has become more diverse, representation at the Capitol has not,” said Claire Wilson, a co-founder and head of the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs. “We came together thinking we really can’t wait any longer to address this gap.”
The nonpartisan Pathways program grew out of a day last year when college students of color shadowed lawmakers and other Capitol movers and shakers during the legislative session. This spring, participants landed paid internships with a wide range of hosts, from the office of the Secretary of State to the state’s largest teacher’s union to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Organizers wanted participants to get a taste of how legislation evolves from ideas to state law. The students do research. They meet with lawmakers and their staff about proposals that their organizations champion. They track bills as they make their way through the Legislature. A few have testified in support of proposed legislation, including a bill that would require the state to maintain more detailed education data.
They also meet once a month for training on leadership and other topics — a chance to share stories and tips about navigating the seat of state power.
“The culture of the Capitol is very established, white, mainstream culture that can be quite intimidating,” Wilson said.
Vega works for the Great Plains Institute, an environmental policy nonprofit. The opportunity came just as she was trying to decide between applying to graduate programs in economics, her major at the U, and public policy. She says her interest in public service springs from her upbringing in a tight-knit Mexican immigrant family: “The values that were ingrained for me were about giving more than taking.”
For Vega, her recent spring break was a respite from a loaded class schedule and allowed her to immerse herself in policy. She attended seven committee hearings, including a day of almost back-to-back hearings from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. She took copious notes and reported back to her supervisor, Amanda Bilek, about the progress of several proposals, including a bill to promote electric cars.
“She has a real hunger to take in as much of the Capitol experience as possible,” said Bilek, the Great Plains Institute’s government affairs and communications director.
At an internship social hour, Vega met and chatted with Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee. She scored an invitation to shadow him for a day.
Vega says the experience so far has strengthened her resolve to run for public office some day. She’s also getting closer to making a decision about grad school.
“I think public policy is definitely for me,” she said.