Mason LIFE Students Head to Capitol Hill

Posted: July 5, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: July 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper with Mason LIFE students. Photo courtesy of Mason LIFE Program

From inside the House of Representatives, Kia Hill listened closely to the passionate voices of Republicans and Democrats swirling around her. She never imagined she would be witnessing a debate that would influence the country’s financial reform legislation.

Hill, a recent graduate of Mason’s Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) Program, was listening to the debate as part of her internship on Capitol Hill in the office of Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly.

Hill and several other Mason LIFE students have participated in a unique internship program that gives young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to work in congressional offices.

“The congressional internship program has helped me grow as a person,” says Hill. “I was honored to even have the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill, something most people don’t get to do.”

A Stepping Stone to Employment

The internship program was established by Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper, whose own son has a genetic condition called Fragile X syndrome. According to Harper, his son’s dream has been to attend Mississippi State University.

While helping Mississippi State develop its own program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the congressman crossed paths with Heidi Graff, director of the Mason LIFE Program, through the assistance of Stephanie Lee, policy advisor at the National Down Syndrome Association.

Harper and Graff, along with staff from the House Administration Committee Republican office, launched a pilot internship program in spring 2010 with three Mason LIFE students and six congressional offices.

The mission of the program, they say, is to foster a greater sense of self-confidence and independence in students with intellectual disabilities, as well as make them more visible to people who don’t have prior experience working with these individuals.

“Students with intellectual disabilities often face many challenges in becoming gainfully employed. This program offers students valuable experience working on Capitol Hill that can be used as a stepping stone when they apply for full-time employment later in life,” says Harper.

“We are also confident that this experience will benefit these students’ venture to meaningfully engage in typical career settings upon leaving college. I am so honored to be a part of this program, and I want to thank George Mason University and the members of Congress who have helped facilitate this,” Harper adds.

On-the-Job Training

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers with Mason LIFE student Ryan Gutkowski and his brother, Kyle. Photo courtesy of Mason LIFE program

Because of the success of the pilot program, the organizers decided to expand the program this summer. During the summer session, which runs until July 29, nearly 20 congressional offices are participating. Each participating office welcomes a Mason LIFE student for a two-hour session on Monday and Friday mornings and afternoons.

In addition to fulfilling their weekly office responsibilities, interns have the opportunity to tour the U. S. Capitol buildings and the Library of Congress, as well as the Smithsonian museums.

Along the way, students are learning valuable life skills — how to use public transportation, exchange money during lunch in the House cafeteria and effectively communicate with others.

“This program has made an amazing difference in the lives of everyone involved,” says Graff. “Not only are our students learning skills that will be vital to them as they start their own careers, but people, especially on Capitol Hill, are beginning to realize what these individuals are really capable of.”

In addition to the House offices, many Senate and legislative branch offices have expressed interest in being involved in the internship programs.

Experience for Graduate Student ‘Assists’

The internship program also provides hands-on experience for graduate students in Mason’s special education and recreation, health and tourism programs.

A Mason graduate student, called an employee assist, accompanies each intern to their congressional office on Capitol Hill. The employee assist helps the intern navigate transportation, provides on-the-job support and serves as the liaison for the intern and the congressional office.

Mason graduate student Surender Raut, an employment instructor with the LIFE Program, has been an employee assist for several Mason LIFE students since the program began. The internship program has been a rewarding experience for Raut as well.

“I feel that my job is very important because I am helping the students acquire the skills they need for employment,” says Raut, who is pursuing a master’s degree in special education. “They start to become more independent and learn how to be active members in the community. The best reward comes when I see the pride they show at their job sites.”

Confident About the Future

Kia Hill’s internship experience with Rep. Kelly, as well as with Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis during the pilot program, have left her feeling confident about her future. She has several job opportunities this summer in Washington, D.C., and plans to spend most of her time at Fairfax County’s Therapeutic Recreation Services working with children with disabilities.

“It is difficult to measure the difference this program has made in the lives of our students, but we see it every day in their faces,” says Graff. “They are so proud to call themselves Capitol Hill interns, and this experience is something they couldn’t find anywhere else.”

For more information about the program, contact Graff at 703-993-8036 or hgraff@gmu.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu