Staff Q&A/Deirdre Martinez

Deirdre Martinez, director, Fels Public Policy Internship Program Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Deirdre Martinez was a creature of Washington, D.C. until she arrived at Penn to work on her Ph.D., which she received in 2005. Captured by the University’s vibrant intellectual environment and the joy of teaching young people about her passion for public policy, she decided to stay. As director of the Fels Public Policy Internship Program for the past four years, and now the director of the summer Penn in Washington program, she’s found a way to stay involved in both the academic world and the world of public policy.

Martinez, quite literally, wrote the book on landing Washington, D.C. internships. It was published in February.

“It was really a perfect time, because you had this very exciting presidential campaign that got the attention of a lot of students who were probably [disillusioned] about politics,” she says. Interest in Washington, D.C. internships skyrocketed as a result of the election. But then, she adds, the economy tanked, and while students still wanted to delve into the Washington, D.C. experience, parents weren’t so sure they could afford to pay for a summer in the nation’s capital.

The Current spoke with Martinez about her work at Penn and her passion for public policy.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your role at the Institute.
I run two programs. The Fels Public Policy Internship Program helps college students find public policy internships. We have a web site that includes a database of more than 1,000 internship sponsors.
The second program is called Penn in Washington. Over the summer, we match Penn alumni with current students, and we have amazing speakers like [Federal Reserve Chairman] Ben Bernanke. The program serves about 200 to 250 students, and lots of the participants are juniors and seniors getting to know the city and the opportunities in it.

Q. What kinds of Washington internships do you help students land?
It’s a huge range. Students end up in House offices, and in the Senate, in think tanks, in federal agencies. One of my students had a great experience working for a small lobbying firm whose clients were state and local governments. One worked for the Inspector General in charge of rebuilding in Iraq. Two worked in the White House.

Q. Why is having an internship so important for public policy students?
In Washington, the internship really has become the first rung on the career ladder. It’s very difficult to get a job, even at the front desk, unless you’ve had an internship or done something in the public policy world. Just in terms of a career, it’s critical, but even if it’s not a career goal it’s so valuable to have some experience in public policy as a citizen, to get a sense of the complexity of the process.

Q. When did you first become interested in public policy?
When I was in college, I was an undergrad in Washington, at George Washington University, and I kind of never left. When I did finally leave, I was a legislative director to a member of Congress. It’s such a fascinating place. I think it’s great that I have this job to open that door for young people. It’s my cup of tea.

Q. Tell me about your work as an advocate and analyst in the nonprofit sector.
My first job was with the National Council of La Raza [a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on reducing poverty and discrimination, and improving opportunities for Hispanic Americans]. I was a poverty policy analyst, but at the time they didn’t have anybody working on employment policy, so I did that too. That led to my first job on the Hill as a legislative assistant.

Q. Talk a bit about working for U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). What was your role in his office?
I was his legislative assistant for education and labor to start, and then I became his legislative director. That involved supervising the legislative staff, keeping track of his legislative agenda.
I was in his office for five years. There certainly were memorable moments. Debating welfare reform until four in the morning and coming out of the Capitol as the sun was rising feeling as if you’ve accomplished something.

Q. What led you to write your book, ‘Washington Internships’?
After a year in this job, I found myself answering the same questions over and over. Some of this didn’t need to be answered in person. I thought you could write down the answers—and so I did.

Q. What’s the key to landing a Washington internship?
I would say that the most important skill in Washington is writing. Your cover letter really needs to be well written. You need to communicate more than what is on your resume. You need to make it not just sound like you want to be in Washington, but that you want to work for that particular organization.
If you’re applying to 15 places and you send the same cover letter to all of them, your chances aren’t very good.

Q. Why is Penn a good place to study and teach public policy?
At Penn, you have an awful lot of people who really know the world of public policy. My program is about connecting the academic world to the real world of policy making. It’s important to know the theory of the policy process. Teaching is great fun. I try and set things up so there are lots of arguments. I make people assume roles they are less comfortable with—pretend to be a liberal, pretend to be a conservative. I want students to work through different perspectives.

Q. Did you ever flirt with the idea of running for office yourself?
No. I am much more interested in the behind-the-scenes, policy-making back rooms as opposed to the glad-handing. I’ll leave that to others.

Originally published on October 15, 2009