When family and friends learned I would be interning at the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University this summer, I was met with confused looks and questions. I’m not Latino, the purposes of an ‘institute’ seemed especially ambiguous, and others wondered why a carefree smart mouth like myself was being allowed anywhere near public policy.
Honestly, I was a bit confused, too. Being the first intern LPI has had, my duties were still undefined when I entered the LPI office in Providence for the first time. My supervisor Anna Cano-Morales could coach me on the LPI “elevator speech” concerning its mission statement, but really, what would I be doing?
After some discussion, we sketched out the project I’d work on: LPI’s first intern would be revisiting LPI’s first report. Released in late 2011, “The Effects of In-State Tuition for Non-Citizens: A Systematic Review of the Evidence” presented a nonpartisan survey of what researchers had to say about undocumented students attending college at in-state tuition rates. The report concluded that allowing undocumented students to pay the in-state rates for public colleges in Rhode Island wouldn’t destroy the state’s economy like soapboxing radio personalities predicted it would. In late 2011, the policy passed, and about 60 students have taken advantage of it since. I then embarked on a quest to find interviewees, one that started with formal emails and inevitably ended with me sitting face-to-face with strangers, swiftly scribbling down pages upon pages of notes.
As a student of both journalism and social science, I’ve been doubly reminded in my studies at RWU of the inaccessibility of people in power. Every journalism student learns that there are some public officials who need extra “encouragement” when it comes to interviews. Every sociology student learns that bureaucracy can be an iron fortress, rather than an open house.
In my experience at LPI, I found this isn’t the case in Rhode Island. Former director of the DCYF Patricia Martinez put aside time to visit me and talk at the LPI office on a (very early) Thursday morning. State representative Grace Diaz’s personal cell number is in my smartphone. Last week I interviewed Rhode Island Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Mancuso via telephone, feeling strangely at ease talking to the head honcho of education in Rhode Island, a woman I’d seen on television just the night before. Over the weekend I even received a call from a high ranking VP from CCRI pursuing a meeting with me on the subject.
Experiential learning is the most precious commodity in contemporary education, because it stresses reality, forges connections and emboldens the spirit. If isolated in the classroom, education can steadily lose its luster and vitality. To revive one’s passion for learning, one must never stray too far from immersion in their interests. For me, that immersion lies in reporting, an activity that lives so distinctly in the present. There’s nothing like the feeling of a pen in your hand, racing swiftly from left to the right, leaving a trail of deep black marks that, by some clumsy grace, will form a cohesive story later on. Thanks to the openness of Rhode Island’s professional community and Roger Williams University, I can happily say I’ve stockpiled on experiential learning this summer. My summer internship at LPI hasn’t just made my resume sexier: it’s revived my passion for reporting. Oh and given me access to the power players of the smallest state in the Union.