March 23, 2018
Until recently, Zach Villegas, a first-generation college student from Springfield, didn't believe he belonged in politics.
“I never thought I was outspoken enough or had a strong enough opinion about anything to be a politician,” said Villegas, a junior majoring in criminal justice and homeland security and emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
That was before a coveted internship offered Villegas an insider’s view of the recent Virginia General Assembly session and the confidence to visualize a career in electoral politics.
“The Virginia Capitol Semester program really made things real to me,” Villegas said. “It helped me to figure out my future. And it gave me the political identity to advocate for the reforms that I believe in.”
Villegas was one of 23 students from VCU who recently completed the Virginia Capitol Semester, run by the Wilder School. The program brings young men and women from colleges and universities throughout the state to Richmond for a rigorous, behind-the-scenes experience during the winter legislative session.
Students complete the internship while continuing their studies on a full-time basis through course work at VCU. The program is bipartisan, said Shajuana Isom-Payne, director of the Wilder School’s Office of Student Success and who runs Virginia Capitol Semester.
Interns are split evenly between lawmakers from both parties and spend approximately 20 hours a week tracking bills, monitoring legislative meetings, corresponding with constituents and researching policy issues.
Additionally, interns attend a three-hour seminar each week featuring senior lawmakers, lobbyists and state policymakers who share their expertise and knowledge.
The idea isn’t to just teach about politics, but how the entire political system works.
“Virginia Capitol Semester is an intense learning experience that offers unrivaled access to the Virginia General Assembly and encourages students to take their learning beyond the classroom and into the real world,” Isom-Payne said.
Something for everyoneWilder School student and Virginia Capitol Semester intern Elizabeth Dexter with legislative assistant Janet Muldoon. Dexter, a junior majoring in criminal justice and homeland security and emergency preparedness, interned in the office of Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw this spring. [View Image] Wilder School student and Virginia Capitol Semester intern Elizabeth Dexter with legislative assistant Janet Muldoon. Dexter, a junior majoring in criminal justice and homeland security and emergency preparedness, interned in the office of Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw this spring.
Not all Virginia Capitol Semester interns have backgrounds in politics, nor do they all wish to pursue a political career. Some just want to know more about how policy works.
The 2018 roster of interns included majors outside the disciplines traditionally associated with the internship, including chemistry, sociology and psychology.
Monty Giles, a Capitol Semester intern from Palmyra majoring in sociology and history in the College of Humanities and Sciences, intends to teach after graduation.
I’ll be able to say I was actually there as a part of the legislative process.
For as long as he can remember, Giles has planned to teach civics and history to high school students in underserved communities.
He undertook the Virginia Capitol Semester program to become a better educator.
“When it comes to teaching, there is nothing that makes you more relatable to students than firsthand experience. Because of this program, I won’t have to lecture from a book. I’ll be able to say I was actually there as a part of the legislative process.”
Elizabeth Dexter, a criminal justice and homeland security and emergency preparedness major at the Wilder School, said the chance to study while advancing her career was one of many reasons she was drawn to Virginia Capitol Semester.
Although Dexter hopes to land a federal job, the Alexandria native is confident that her internship in Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw’s office gave her an advantage.
“No matter where I work in criminal justice — FBI or CIA — a background in policy will help exponentially,” Dexter said, “because in the end, everything is policy.
"Having the ability to talk to legislators on a daily basis, articulate policy positions to constituents, and network with peers and others — these are career-making experiences that will carry me forward.”
Capitol connectionsVirginia Capitol Semester students meet with House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones to discuss the finer points of putting together a $115 billion government during a seminar on February 19. [View Image] Virginia Capitol Semester students meet with House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones to discuss the finer points of putting together a $115 billion government during a seminar on February 19.
The Virginia Capitol Semester pays dividends for interns and legislators alike.
Landes, a VCU alumnus whose patronage of the program dates back at least a decade, described the Virginia Capitol Semester interns that he has worked with over the years as “bright young men and women that really seem to have not only an interest in government, but a willingness to serve and actually exert some influence in the process.”
Landes was so impressed with Villegas, his most recent intern, that he has asked him back for the 2019 legislative session.
Villegas was surprised to develop personal as well as professional ties through the Virginia Capitol Semester. In fact, the night of the interview for this story, Villegas departed early to attend a thank-you dinner with Landes and his staff.
Virginia Capitol Semester 2019 information session
When: Friday, March 23, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Online at
Who: All students are welcome to join the session and learn about the program.
“I came in from my past experiences with other internships expecting to be treated like an intern, but Delegate Landes and his staff have really accepted me and helped me to develop as a person,” Villegas said. “It’s been kind of nice finding family in Richmond.”
While not every intern can expect to develop close bonds through their placement, several have used the Virginia Capitol Semester as a starting point for careers in government and legislative offices.
Virginia Capitol Semester interns have landed fellowships in the governor’s office, with Virginia senators and House members, and major political parties.
Asif Bhavnagri is a policy adviser to Brian J. Moran, Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, and a 2011-12 alumnus of the Virginia Capitol Semester. Bhavnagri fondly remembers his placement in Del. Charniele Herring’s office and the indelible instruction he received from William Leighty, former gubernatorial chief of staff.
Bhavnagri worked for Herring, the former Democratic Whip, during a time of intense debate in the assembly. During Bhavnagri’s tenure at the General Assembly, Virginia passed two of the most controversial anti-abortion bills in years, despite numerous public demonstrations and objections from Democrats.
“It was such a unique time,” recalled Bhavnagri, who went on to serve as a field organizer and press assistant to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe before being promoted to his current position.
Despite the tumultuousness of the period, Bhavnagri described his Virginia Capitol Semester experience as one of hard work and preparation.
“I would say that that the Virginia Capitol Semester gave me a great deal of clarity about the political process and what it takes to make change within it. Interns receive a framework for the nuts and bolts of what legislators do — whether it’s reading their electorate, developing a legislative platform, framing their positions for debate,” Bhavnagri said. “It really is an intense primer on the policy process. I am very proud and grateful to be an alumnus.”
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