October 7, 2013

Furloughed Cornell Students Interning in D.C. ‘Disappointed’ by Shutdown

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By EMMA COURT

David Schatz ’14 chose to spend the first semester of his senior year in the Cornell in Washington program, where he hoped to gain real world experience as an intern at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Instead, Schatz spent the last week watching a lot of Netflix.

Schatz is one of several Cornell students interning at government departments who were furloughed as a result of the government shutdown on Oct. 1. Because Congress failed to pass a spending bill that would fund government functions for the upcoming fiscal year, all government agencies deemed “nonessential” have been closed, and their employees have been furloughed, or forced to take temporary unpaid leave.

Eight of the 42 students participating in the CIW program this semester have been furloughed, according to Prof. Robert Hutchens, economics, who is also the director of CIW. Four other students have federal government internships but were not furloughed, Hutchens said.

“We are very much concerned about the effect the shutdown will have on the experiences of our students,” Hutchens said in an email. “That said, we are keeping an eye on the situation. At some point we may want to join the furloughed students in looking at alternative activities.”

Schatz said the shutdown has been particularly disappointing because CIW, which combines Cornell classes with internship experience, is structured so the internship is the “focal point” of the program. The result is that the program has been “stunted” for him and his fellow furloughed students, Schatz said.

“It’s definitely an unfortunate situation,” Schatz said. “[For CIW,] classes are at night and the paper you’re writing is about what you’re doing at your internship, so it’s a little bit odd now that everything has come to a halt. There’s been a lot of sitting around.”

Hutchens said that students’ final projects could be on any topic, so “the eight furloughed students will usually have the opportunity to reallocate their time to their academic work.”

Still, Schatz said the shutdown has definitely affected his experience in the program, both in obvious and more subtle ways. In one of his classes, the students and professor even took bets about when the government shutdown would end.

Schatz went from aiding economists in conducting research about unemployment to being effectively unemployed himself.

Lauren Avery ’15, a Sun senior news writer who is also interning at a government agency, described the shutdown as “disappointing.” Students, as well as others in Washington, are “just kind of waiting it out,” she said.

“This is one of our only chances, probably in our lives, to see the government from inside out. For a lot of people, me included, it’s a matter of whether or not we want to work in the government someday,” Avery said. “It’s hard because we really want to take advantage of our short time here.”

Students said said the shutdown had a marked impact on the climate at the capitol.

“Regardless of partisan beliefs, there’s a feeling — at least here — that something has to get done. … [Although I’m] an unpaid intern, people working for the government are in a state of uncertainty,” Schatz said. “Regardless of how people feel about Obamacare or the budget deficit, there’s a sense … of dissatisfaction with Congress right now.”

For students who are out of work, many of the Washington, D.C. tourist sites they would visit in their free time have been closed because of the shutdown. The shutdown has closed the museums on the National Mall, along with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Smithsonian museums and galleries, the National Gallery of Art and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, according to The Huffington Post.

“At first it was great to start catching up on sleep and relaxing, but it’s getting to the point where I’m running out of things to do and getting bored,” said Molly Ganley ’15, who is completing a credit internship with the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions and is currently furloughed.

Avery said along with many popular D.C. attractions being closed, the economic costs for government employees have also been on display in D.C. Many restaurants have been offering free meals and drinks to furloughed employees.

Even though she is missing out on part of her internship, Avery said she also felt excited to be in Washington, D.C. at such a “pivotal time.”

“This is something we’ll remember and say we lived through,” she said. “It’s disappointing that we can’t work, but it’s pretty amazing we’re here during such a crazy period in American politics. It’s been a rollercoaster that we’ve gotten to see and experience first hand.”

For Ganley, it has been the opposite.

“At first it seemed like this exciting idea — ‘oh, will the government shut down or not?’ Everyone was talking about it. It sounded like it could be a nice couple days off,” she said. “Now I’m realizing that my whole semester is centered around this internship — so not being able to go in definitely affects me.”

Yet, both Avery and Schatz said at the end of the day, they were in Washington for the semester to learn about the government, and the shutdown itself was full of lessons.

“I came to Washington with a very basic understanding of how the government works. Seeing it hit this wall has certainly taught me a lot about the limitations of government, the way power is broken up and how it can affect an entire city and an entire country,” Avery said.

Schatz echoed Avery’s sentiment.

“It’s definitely one of those ‘only in D.C.’ experiences,” he said. “When you’re in Ithaca, there’s a sense of an intellectual bubble. I don’t think I would have been affected by the shutdown much at all if I was there,” Schatz said. “Down here, what with not being able to go to work, being that affected by government action is a unique experience.”

Still, students said they are ready to get back to work.

Doug Mills / The New York TimesPresident Barack Obama speaks to workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters Monday. He said the shutdown has made the agency’s ability to respond to disasters “more difficult.”

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