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If there’s one thing I know after a long year spent studying policy from afar in the relatively insulated enclave that is Evanston, Illinois, it’s this: I need to be where the action is.

I spent the summer after my freshman year interning at the Center on Halsted, an LGBT community center in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Incidentally, that was the summer during which a US district judge overturned California’s notorious Prop 8, which was heralded as a turning point in the struggle for marriage equality. At the Center on Halsted, the Google News Alert that broke the momentous news was invariably greeted with explosive rejoicing the likes of which I had never seen before (think lots of tearful hugs and ecstatic dances of joy).  I left work that day feeling like had become a part of a struggle much greater than myself. Lowly intern that I was, I nonetheless felt connected to a movement that was working tirelessly to further the rights of millions of Americans.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

The following summer I enthusiastically accepted an internship in the Government Relations Department at Planned Parenthood Federation of America in Washington DC. Planned Parenthood had narrowly emerged from a harrowing defunding crisis earlier that year, and there was an overwhelming sense of urgency in the face of the rising tide of anti-choice political sentiment that increasingly threatened American women’s access to basic reproductive health services, such as contraception and cancer screenings.

Despite the grave political climate, interning at Planned Parenthood was a blast. I grew to love the fast-paced, high-energy work environment, which included frequent trips to the Capitol for hearings, briefings, and the occasional rally. I also developed a deeper understanding of health care policy, which furthered my personal investment in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Once again, I relished the sense of working on behalf of a larger goal. Though the day-to-day minutia of my internship could occasionally get monotonous, the overriding feeling that my efforts were furthering women’s health care access made the experience more than worth it.

When it became clear that the Affordable Care Act would face a Supreme Court challenge, I knew I had to get back to the center of all the action. I applied for a thousand and one internships at every DC-based women’s health NGO I could think of. I also applied for a SIGP grant, since, as a rule, no one pays excited young college students who want to learn about health policy. (And DC is expensive, folks!) Thanks to SIGP and the generosity of the Tricia Apte Memorial Fund, I was able to accept my dream internship as an outreach intern for the Health and Reproductive Rights Program at the National Women’s Law Center.

Working at the NWLC is a health policy nut’s dream. From day one, I felt fully engaged in the Law Center’s mission of expanding, defending and promoting women’s rights at every stage of the legal process. As an outreach intern, my assignments have focused largely on engaging the Law Center’s coalition partners and supporters through various forms of outreach. I’ve blogged about a variety of topics, including gender-based violence, Title IX, and women in the military. I’ve drafted tweets and exhausted my brain in an effort to come up with funny, share-able memes for the Law Center’s Facebook page. I also had ample opportunity to examine the implications of seemingly every conceivable outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act.

In the lead-up to the ruling, everyone at the Law Center was on pins and needles. The optimism that initially characterized the health care law’s supporters prior to the oral arguments in March had long been replaced by a measured sense of foreboding as pundits and politicians predicted a Supreme Court smack-down. Press releases, email alerts, and blog posts were drafted ahead of time to address every foreseeable outcome. My supervisor and I were tasked with creating a celebratory tumblr (in the same vein as the viral ‘When Obama Endorsed Marriage Equality’ tumblr) in the event that the law was upheld. We had a fabulous time making it, but neither one of us so much as dared to hope that it would ever see the light of day.

As you’ve probably realized, we were happily mistaken! (And our tumblr went live! You can check it out here). On the day of the ruling, the Law Center allowed the interns to attend a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. It was an unforgettable scene. We chanted and held signs in the blistering heat (while remaining glued to our smartphones so as not to miss the live commentary from SCOTUSblog.) When it became clear that the Affordable Care Act had been upheld almost in full by the Supreme Court, the crowd erupted. Back at the Law Center, the staff was jubilant. (Thankfully, someone managed to capture their reaction on video. It’s priceless.) It was an emotional day for everyone. Once again, I felt keenly aware that I had become a part of something huge, something that would affect the lives of women and families for generations to come. These moments make the laborious hours spent pouring over case law in Deering Library, the stress of submitting internship applications amidst the craziness of winter quarter, and the monotonous hours spent updating spreadsheets for the Law Center all 100% worthwhile.

For me, the summers I’ve spent interning have been just as, if not more, formative than any class I’ve taken at Northwestern. I’ve been able to apply my knowledge in a work setting while developing a real passion for health policy and legal advocacy. My internships have provided an invaluable sense of direction that has informed my involvement on campus as well as my long-term career goals. I cannot emphasize enough how important I think it is that students break out of their comfort zones and explore their fields of interest in a hands-on way. UCS will guide you through the process – so why not use them as a resource? Had I not opened the ‘advocacy’ can of worms during the summer of 2010 at the Center on Halsted, who knows if I’d have ever have discovered my passion for women’s health? My best advice is to seize the moment and use your summers as a time to explore and grow.

About the NU Intern Blogger Program
This summer, over 50 Northwestern University students will be sharing stories about what they are experiencing at their internships from across the country and internationally. Each week new students will share an inside look at what it means to be an intern. Please contact Betsy Gill, Assistant Director, Internship Services if you have any questions.