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Boots on the Ground

When Holly Danford left the Air Force in 2004, she had no idea that five years later she’d be working with North Carolina lawmakers on legislation to help her fellow veterans. But that’s exactly what she is doing, through a unique internship program provided by the state legislature and NC State’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Sitting at a desk in front of a picture window overlooking the courtyard behind the Legislative Building in Raleigh, Danford identifies staff members, legislators and lobbyists as they stroll under her gaze and into the lobby of the building.

“You meet people from all of the agencies, and that gives you the opportunity to forge relationships and develop social networks that will undoubtedly help when trying to establish a career post-graduation,” she says. “If I choose to work on veterans affairs issues, I’ve met generals, colonels and the commanders of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.”

It’s a new duty station of sorts for Danford, a former staff sergeant who served on active duty in the Air Force for seven years, providing HIV counseling as a public health technician at duty stations around the world. After she and her husband left the service and moved to North Carolina with their two children, she enrolled at NC State. Danford was interested in public health and decided to major in political science, but wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do after graduation.

That was before she enrolled in the North Carolina Legislative Internship program.

The program accepts about 14 students each year from colleges and universities throughout North Carolina, and assigns them to internship positions with key legislators. The program runs during the spring semester and includes a month-long internship in one of the administrative offices at the legislature, such as its research division. After that first month, students work 30 hours per week for an individual legislator, but also take courses in legislative process and leadership. Dr. Stephen Straus, director of the program and an extension professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, says the goal is “to integrate real-world experience of the political process with what the students learn in the classroom.”

As far as Danford is concerned, mission accomplished. Her internship with Wake County Rep. Grier Martin has been “a great experience.” Martin, a major in the Army National Guard, is vice-chairman of the Homeland Security, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee. Interning in Martin’s office has given Danford the opportunity to work on a wide range of veterans issues including homeless veterans, traumatic brain injuries, absentee military voting, and the availability of family service centers for families of service members who are deployed.

The experience has also given Danford specific goals for what to do after she gets her undergraduate degree this December. She plans to apply to the Masters of Public Administration program at NC State, and then land a job working for the legislature.

“I can’t speak for all of the lawmakers,” Danford says, “but working with Rep. Martin illustrates that there are legislators who really do care about their constituents.”

But regardless of whether interns decide to pursue a career in the legislative building, the internship program gives students a big boost on the job market. Lejeana Black, a junior at NC State, is interning this year with Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr. Black is majoring in business administration, with a concentration in finance, and thinks her experience working with Alexander will serve her well since he serves on the Finance Committee. This experience will “help with networking and making contacts that help you stand out in a crowded job market,” Black says.

Danford agrees that her experience makes her “absolutely more marketable.” But, she says, she was somewhat hesitant when she first heard about the internship program since it only provides participants with 12 academic credits – which delayed her graduation.

Now, she says “I am grateful that NC State helps make this program possible, and I absolutely made the right decision when I applied for this internship.”