SPONSORED: A little more than a year ago, University of Alaska Anchorage student Alliana Salanguit thought she knew what her future looked like. She was going to complete her economics degree, leave the state, and never look back.
That was before she spent a session as an intern in the Alaska State Legislature.
Today, Salanguit is a staffer in the office of Rep. David Guttenberg. She postponed her college graduation until December so she can work in Juneau this legislative session.
"I've been very lucky," Salanguit said. "I'm only 21, and being able to do this at such a young age, during my undergraduate (years), has been such a phenomenal experience. I'm doing pretty cool things."
Salanguit is one of 300 University of Alaska students who have participated in the University's legislative internship program, now known as the Senator Ted Stevens Legislative Internship Program, over the past three decades. The program gives upperclassmen and graduate students at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Fairbanks or Southeast the opportunity to work for a lawmaker during the legislative session while earning 12 upper-division credits.
Salanguit's graduation from intern to staffer is far from unique. In fact, approximately 20 percent of staff currently working in the Capitol are alumni of the intern program, according to UAS Associate Professor of Social Science Glenn Wright, who serves as the program's statewide coordinator.
"In a typical year, 40 to 50 percent of our students will graduate and then will go on to work full-time as professional staff in the Legislature," Wright said.
While the internships aren't necessarily intended as a job-placement program, one of the program's aims is to give participants skills that they can use in their professional lives, in or out of government.
"Most of the time, when we have undergraduate programs in the social sciences or humanities … there is this sense that we're training students to be involved in public life and to understand the world, but there isn't necessarily a really clear connection between undergraduate coursework that they're taking at the University and some sort of career," Wright said. "What the internship program does is it provides that connection."
Alumni of the program talk about being welcomed as peers by career legislative staffers, enjoying opportunities for mentorship, and doing a range of hands-on legislative work, from research to constituent relations to advocating for legislation. Many are political science majors or have already spent time working in politics, but for some, it's their first exposure to the political process.
"I hadn't really been involved with local politics, and definitely not state politics, so I was kind of stepping outside of my comfort zone," said David Russell-Jensen, who interned for Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins during the 2016 legislative session.
An Alaska Native studies major who has since graduated and gone on to work in nonprofit development, Russell-Jensen said his internship afforded him the opportunity to learn what government looks like from the inside. While he doesn't know that politics is necessarily in his future, he said he came away with skills that will be useful no matter his career path.
"(You) learn how to be a better advocate for yourself, for your community, for causes you care about," Russell-Jensen said. "You learn what legislators want to hear when you're advocating for specific things that matter to you."
Joey Sweet, who interned for Sen. Berta Gardner in 2016, said he would occasionally step back from his work in the Legislature and take a moment to absorb that he was actually involved in making laws — something he had learned about in school but couldn't believe he was getting to do for real.
"To be responsible for legislation, and to see it go from committee to committee firsthand, is very different from just reading about it or seeing a video about it," Sweet said.
Participants in the intern program attend a weekly seminar in addition to their full-time work in the Legislature, and given the hectic pace of the session, they're discouraged from taking additional classes or working outside the Capitol. The program offers need- and merit-based stipends to help cover living expenses.
"The stipends are really essential for a lot of the students participating in the program," Russell-Jensen said.
That's where the Ted Stevens connection comes in.
Last year, Ted Stevens Foundation board members caught wind of budget cuts that threatened to eliminate the stipends. The foundation stepped in with funds to support the 2017 class of interns, and later announced a formal sponsorship of the program. The foundation has pledged $31,500 per year for the next five years, plus a challenge grant that will match up to $10,500 per year in private donations. In acknowledgement, the University offered to rename the program — and the Senator Ted Stevens Legislative Internship Program came into being.
Supporting the internship program fell perfectly into line with the foundation's mission of honoring the late senator's legacy, said Ted Stevens Foundation Executive Director Karina Waller. During his 40 years in the Senate, Stevens hosted hundreds of Alaska high school and college students as interns in his Washington, D.C., office (including Waller, who returned to work for the senator after graduating from law school).
"He thought it was very important for Alaska students to have an opportunity to experience first-hand the congressional political process, and how the legislative initiatives being developed would impact their state and nation," Waller said.
Making the experience accessible to all Alaska students, regardless of means, was important to Stevens, Waller said. He made sure airfare was covered for his interns, and he paid them to offset the cost of their housing in Washington. That's why supporting stipends for the University's internship program seemed like such a good fit for the foundation.
"Obviously it's very expensive for a college student to live in Juneau for the legislative session," Waller said. "We want students who are interested in the legislative process to be able to participate regardless of what their financial resources are."
Waller said the Ted Stevens Foundation would love to expand the program and bring even more interns to Juneau.
"When you are afforded this opportunity as a young adult, it changes your perspective on the trajectory of your life," she said. "You have more of a civic-minded approach regardless of the career path you ultimately take."
For Salanguit, the internship program didn't just lead to a job. It changed her perspective on Alaska.
"I grew up in Anchorage and spent all of my time there," Salanguit said. "All I knew were Anchorage policies." Working for an Interior lawmaker has given her an education in issues that affect Alaskans outside of the Southcentral population center as well as a new appreciation for life in Anchorage.
As for her plan to leave Alaska after graduation? It's on hold for now.
"When I started at UAA, I was dead set on getting out and staying out," Salanguit said. Now, she added, "I'm definitely more inclined to stay here or to come back. I feel like I've just put so much in that I can't leave and stay away."
Presented by the University of Alaska. To learn more about the Senator Ted Stevens Legislative Internship Program, please visit uas.alaska.edu/internprogram.
This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the University of Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.