It’s not easy for college students to take a whole month out of the middle of an academic semester to serve as legislative interns for Wyoming lawmakers. But, every year, students from across Wyoming accept that challenge and travel to Cheyenne to assist legislators in the work they do on behalf of the state’s citizens. Almost every year, Western Wyoming Community College sends one or two students to participate.
And, almost every year, those students earn high praise from lawmakers for their diligence, professionalism, and conscientious performance of duties.
Western's legislative interns won the Outstanding Legislative Intern Award in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and again this year, when the College had two students – recent graduates Tanner Petersen and Melia Dayley - win it.
"Sending top-notch students to serve as interns at the Legislature has long been a priority for Western," said Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology Bruce Anderson. "Our two interns this year - Melia and Tanner - were particularly exemplary, and both left a decidedly positive impression with legislators, especially our local representatives, and at the Legislative Service Office, who have learned to expect high-quality, dedicated interns from Western."
Clearly, Western’s students are valued for their contributions to the Legislature, and they, in turn, greatly value the experience that service brings.
“What happens is, the college interns are in a pool of interns, so we’re not working for a specific legislator,” explained Petersen, of Farson. “Rather, we’re working for anyone who needs help. And so we end up working from both sides of the aisle. People will (say), ‘I have this extensive research project; I need it in done in two weeks.’ Or someone is like, ‘I need this in 15 minutes for the floor.’ So it’s just kind of chaotic.”
“The first week, we made sure we made friends with all of the legislators so we would have research projects,” said Dayley, of Sugar City, Idaho. “They would come up to us and say, ‘I need this in 15 minutes, I need you to look up this past state statute and give me a report on it, and how that compares to this bill.’ And you had 15 minutes before they went in, and you had to do something really fast.”
“It is a lot of pressure,” she admitted. “If you mess up and don’t get it done in time, they’re sitting in a debate and they don’t have any research.”
The duo’s duties included everything from responding to emails for legislators or updating their Facebook pages, to researching background information related to measures under consideration on the floor. One Sweetwater County-related project that Petersen and Dayley worked on together regarded a proposal for Abandoned Mine Lands funding for the Bitter Creek reclamation project.
“We created a comprehensive packet that had all of the information summarized about its connection to coal and the projects that had been done and what needed to be done,” Petersen recalled. “That was really, really neat. And to kind of see some of the research that we put together work on the floor, and how people were using that research, was really cool and rewarding.”
The interns’ experiences at the Legislature were not all work-related, however. One day, Petersen said, Sens. Bernadine Craft and John Hastert conscripted them into service for the much-anticipated House vs. Senate Karaoke Night, which was held at one of the many evening receptions lawmakers attend during the session.
“They had us find costumes and props for the Karaoke Night, and they had us learn a song, and we sang with them,” Petersen said. “The Senate won, clearly because we were on their team! It was really fun to see the work-play dynamic. Because they work, definitely, very, very hard, and they play just as hard.”
“When you get to the receptions, you get to see their personalities and really see them as people instead of just as politicians,” Dayley said of state lawmakers. “I liked that a lot.”
Not surprisingly, Petersen and Dayley were hard at work on legislative research when they learned from their Intern Coordinator that they had been selected as this year’s Outstanding Legislative Interns.
“There was a moment where everyone was gone,” Dayley recalled. “Tanner and I were doing research, and our coordinator came up and said, ‘Just so you guys know, you have received the award. You’re well deserving of it. You’ve worked so hard and gained a relationship with so many legislators, and they respect you, and they trust you and your work. There’s no one else I’d rather give it to than you.’
“That made us feel like we were important to the process,” she said. “I knew that they really respected us. And it was cool when we actually received the award. The House is a little bit more rowdy than the Senate, but they all stood up and whistled and clapped and cheered. We made some good friends there. It was fun.”
“There were so many people there that were rooting for us,” Petersen agreed. “I think that when someone our age thinks about politics, we don’t correlate it to kindness or acceptance or willingness to teach, but that’s what this experience showed me. Everyone there wanted us to succeed and wanted us to have the best experience that we could, and that, I thought, was really neat.”
Dayley and Petersen both graduate from Western on May 13. Dayley is transferring to BYU in the fall, where she will continue her studies in history but now hopes to add a second major in political science. She anticipates a future career as a political advisor or legislative research assistant, someone who engages in the behind-the-scenes work of public service.
“You have to jump on every opportunity, and Western has so many different opportunities for people,” said Dayley, who credited Assistant Professor of History and Political Science Jessica Clark, Ph.D., with suggesting that she pursue the internship. “I took a leap of faith and said, ‘I’m going to try this out.’ And it has helped me so much. It helped me envision what I want to do with my future career and where I want to go in education.”
Petersen is a communication major and a nationally ranked speech and debate competitor for the Mustangs. She has accepted a summer internship position with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso’s office in Rock Springs, and she will continue her college studies in Utah in the fall.
“It was absolutely life-changing. I loved it so much,” Petersen said of her legislative internship. “I would do it every year if I could.
Prof. Clark said that legislative internships provide students with opportunities to develop their talents and discover their interests.
"This internship is such an incredible opportunity," she said. "I have had the pleasure of watching three of my students grow immensely as legislative interns. They discovered who they were, and what they wanted to be when they grow up, through this internship. Learning doesn't just take place in the classroom. Indeed, some of the most important learning moments occur on site through internships, research groups and study-abroad programs."
Western students who are interested in applying for an internship assignment for the 2017 Legislative Session should email Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.