Indiana University of Pennsylvania first partnered with The Washington Center more than 40 years ago and the current liaison, Diane Stipcak, has been in her role on campus for 17 years. She sat down with us for a Q&A on the partnership, being a liaison and the rewards of both for her, her university and her students.
Why did your university decide to work with The Washington Center? How did that partnership come to be?
According to our records, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) started partnering with The Washington Center back in 1977. I believe we were among the first schools to come on board and begin participating in the internship program. I wasn’t the liaison back then, obviously. We have sent approximately 560 students to Washington, D.C. between 1977 and today. Nearly all of those students have participated in internships. We’ve sent a few for seminars, particularly the Inauguration or Convention seminars, but mostly IUP students are coming to D.C. for the Academic Internship Program (AIP).
Can you describe your institution’s relationship with TWC?
Our relationship with TWC is fabulous. It’s a true partnership-a really good, honest, and trusting relationship. Representatives from TWC regularly visit IUP during the Spring and Fall semesters for on-campus recruiting. Our students mostly attend TWC during the Summer term. There are some academic programs on campus that only allow for Summer internships due to commitments. Most of our students are on specific graduation tracks and the Summer is simply the most convenient time for them to come to D.C. for an internship. We do still have some who will do AIP during a semester, though. IUP sends students from a variety of majors. Quite a bit come from communications and media, political science, as well as criminology and history. But we’ve also sent anthropology, child development and even art majors. I think we sent 48 students from nine majors one Summer alone. It has really been grand to offer a program that is open to all of our students, regardless of major.
How has the partnership evolved?
Bringing IUP faculty and staff to D.C. to see TWC firsthand, on two separate occasions, has helped solidify our partnership. Once they are able to meet with TWC staff, see the Residential Academic Facility (RAF) and other facilities, and really understand what the students are able to get out of the internship experience, people become more involved. That is really a great selling point on the value of the partnership. We’ve also had Kelly (Eaton) visit campus and talk with folks about TWC and what it means for students. But actually getting people’s feet here in D.C. has made a big difference, I’ve found, in really promoting the program and what our students are seeing and doing. We are really preparing students for their next step.
In what way (if any) does TWC serve as an extension of your campus in D.C.?
From our perspective, TWC is pretty much set up like a campus in itself. I think the main thing is our students know TWC has resources available, similar to the student life services they know, if they need anything. The students feel taken care of and secure while they are here. It is a great opportunity for them to branch out and live in this robust city. It is a new college-like experience for them because both our student body and campus are very rural. We also have a lot of first generation college students. More than 20% of IUP students are first generation. For many, these unknown experiences are the kinds of things that get them excited or anxious, but once they get into TWC they really settle in and it becomes home. They all tell me how quickly it went by.
Can you review your involvement with TWC: How long have you been a liaison? Have you attended any events or seminars?
I have been a liaison for 17 years. I was fortunate to inherit the liaison role as part of my job. I didn’t actually come to visit D.C. for a while after starting. Honestly, I was afraid to drive in the city, but I am now a regular. I’m on the TWC Liaison Advisory Board (LAB) and attend the Liaison Institute each spring as well. On different occasions, we’ve held networking events with our IUP alumni here in D.C. in conjunction with my visits. And I attend other special events, like the upcoming TWC Employer-Higher Ed Roundtable, where I will also be a panelist.
Is there a specific highlight or experience from your time as a liaison you could share?
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) has been honored twice, just during my time as the liaison at IUP. Once in 2009 and again in 2017, if I am remembering these dates correctly. In 2015, I was recognized as the liaison of the year for connecting students to TWC through the partnership and for acting as an ambassador, champion for TWC to faculty and staff on campus. It was pretty special to be recognized by an organization that has always been supportive of me.
Has a specific student(s) returned from TWC with an impactful story?
It happens all the time. Every year the students come back to campus and I hear about how they have learned so much about themselves and the difference coming here to TWC made. I’ve had students come for their internships and return saying they have changed their mind on their direction. For example, a student may return saying they still want to go to law school, but they don’t want to chase the big bucks and would rather do something that helps people. Those are the stories that really warm your heart. I had an accounting student return from his internship that said he had changed his mind. My heart stopped. I said, “what do you mean you don’t want to do accounting anymore? Your parents are going to kill us!” And he started laughing. He said no, he still wanted to do accounting, just that he realized he wanted to do something different with his accounting degree than what he had thought. That’s what is so great. Had he not done the internship and gotten the networking opportunities that allowed him to identify this other avenue, maybe he wouldn’t be the successful accountant he is today or doing something else entirely.
I think a really important factor with an internship is that it can not only help a student discover what they love and really want to do, but also learn that maybe the path they had envisioned isn’t truly the best for them.
What are the benefits of TWC you mention to students?
I always tell the students that this is probably the best internship experience they could possibly get. It’s more than just going to the internship site and then coming home. They have a class to take, they’ll be working and socializing with other interns, networking, and receive ample professional development that they can take advantage of. They wouldn’t get much, if any, of that from another internship program or opportunity. I really try to emphasize that and get them to explore a club or activity while they’re in D.C. to build more relationships and get their network up and going. And each summer before the students head to D.C. we host a send off. I’ll bring in a panel of alumni from the year prior to share their stories with the departing cohort. They are anxious to talk to the next group. I also tend to have TWC alumni working in my office and when students call up asking to speak with me the students who’ve answered the phone and have done TWC will go off on their own about how great the experience is. All of my students really do support each other and I try to get other professors to allow those students to speak to their classes, as well.
What is the single biggest benefit TWC provides to your university?
I think the biggest benefit is the substantive internship experience and professional development TWC offers our student body. We can talk about professional development all day, but until a student is placed in the situation and is able to use that in an internship experience, it won’t resonate the same. Firsthand is a whole different ballgame. I see a real transformation among the students who come back from TWC. They really absorb the professional development, they’ve taken it seriously and learned a lot about working as part of a team while in D.C. and about responsibilities. I explain to the faculty and staff that may push back against the value of TWC that this is an experience the students will never have again. It is both affordable - thanks to the PASSHE scholarships - and there is a support system in place. There is an absolute difference between a TWC internship and other programs.
Why should someone become a TWC liaison? What rewards from being a liaison would you identify?
I would certainly encourage anyone to take advantage of the opportunity to be part of this as a TWC liaison. It is so wonderful to witness the transformation in the students. If you care about the students, you can see the difference it makes. We’ve talked with several potential liaisons, whether within the Pennsylvania system or other states, basically I tell them about all the great things about the program itself. TWC remains constant in continually evolving and growing in order to better serve students and the students just get so much out of their internships.
Our partnership with TWC is really like working within the family. I’m pleased to be the TWC liaison at IUP. Whether in D.C. or on your campus, everyone is so welcoming when you see them and committed to doing better, doing more for the students. The difference our partnership makes in the students’ futures is clear.