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Minority Hires a Priority On Capitol Hill

With the economy still reeling, Hampton University didn’t get its usual contingent of 100 employers at its fall 2009 career fair for students and alumni. But one sector was there in force – federal government agencies looking for candidates for career positions.  

“Government agencies come every time,” says Vivian David, director of the university’s career center. Agencies such as the FBI, Census Bureau, State Department and Patent and Trademark Office are among those that frequently send recruiters to Hampton for such events. “They actively recruit,” David says, and students seem to respond positively. “It’s a brand that’s popular on campus.”

 Recruitment of African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian-Americans is a priority across the federal government. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must report annually on minority employment, and its findings show some gains. Overall, minorities were 33 percent of the federal work force in 2008, meaning they were over-represented in government compared with the rest of the U.S. work force. Together, these groups represented 29 percent of the civilian labor force last year.

 But a more in-depth look at the data yields mixed results. On the positive side, African-Americans represent 18 percent of all federal workers, compared with 10 percent of the civilian labor force. But Hispanics account for 13 percent of U.S. workers and only 7.9 percent of federal employees.

Minorities also fare worse among the cadre of federal senior executives. Of 6,100 senior government executives, only about 200 are African-American, says the African American Federal Employees Association, a coalition seeking to improve that figure. “If our nation is to continue to grow and maintain its position of leadership in the world, our federal leadership needs to reflect the diversity of the American culture,” association president William Brown said in a statement.

 To address these issues, minority-serving colleges and universities are active in internship programs that may increase the pipeline of qualified federal employees. One of the largest is the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities National Internship Program (HNIP), which brought 680 students this year to Washington, D.C., or other locations for jobs at federal agencies. “We’ve become a human-resource pipeline for federal agencies,” HNIP Executive Director Maria Elena Vivas-House says. “For many federal agencies, it can be a challenge to reach Latinos. We do that job for them.”

 Students who have completed their freshman year are eligible, a process that begins with an online application. Students must have a 3.0 grade-point average and be eligible to work in the United States. Some federal agencies also have a citizenship requirement, she says.

Applicants also must write an essay, include a resume and provide a certificate or other proof that they attend college. Most interns work in the summer, though there are some semester-long opportunities available in the fall and spring. “Our program runs nonstop,” Vivas-House says.

Career Opportunities    

As a first-generation college student at California State University, Fullerton, Maricela Huerta gave little thought to a career in government. But that changed after she came to Washington for three summers as part of HNIP. “It motivated me to do more,” says Huerta, who spent her summers as an intern at the Department of Treasury and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., mastering details of event planning in Washington.

 “I never thought I’d be living on the other side of the country,” says Huerta, who found a job in D.C., though not with the government, after graduating in 2008. She credits her career in large part to the internship program. “They put us in a situation where people have the same ambition, background and culture,” she says. “You’re not alone. It’s a brotherhood that’s shared.”

 Students receive a stipend of $450 to $500 every two weeks. The program finds housing for them and offers a weekend orientation to welcome them to Washington.

 In addition to jobs in federal agencies, the program offers seminars and networking opportunities for participants. As a veteran of the internship program, for example, Huerta took on a leadership role in 2008, organizing a series of job “shadowing” events that brought interns together with Latino and other leaders across federal agencies.

While Hispanics account for the bulk of HNIP interns, the program is open to anyone. This year, African- and Asian-Americans each accounted for 10 percent of participants, with White non-Hispanic students representing 5 percent of interns. While Hispanic-serving colleges are prime recruitment sites for the program, students do not have to attend an MSI to become an intern.

 Federal agencies participating in HNIP include the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau. “It takes about one or two years to develop a relationship with a federal agency,” Vivas-House says. As the program has grown, some agencies come to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) seeking involvement.

 Federal agencies pay HNIP, which then finds housing and provides stipends. The program has an annual budget of about $7 million, Vivas-House says.

 The program began as a small initiative in 1992 with 24 students. As it has grown, HACU has documented some lasting effects. In a survey of past HNIP participants at the program’s 15th anniversary, about 40 percent of respondents said they found federal government jobs or other employment in Washington.

HNIP is not the only internship program offering MSI students an opportunity to gain Washington experience. Since 1997, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) internship program has served students from historically Black colleges and universities. Interns in this program must have a 3.0 grade-point average, be a U.S. citizen and submit an application, resume and academic transcripts. Applicants also must provide two faculty recommendations, says Dr. LaNitra Berger, NAFEO director of leadership and international programs.

 NAFEO staff refer applications to federal agencies based on their identified needs. These agencies review applications, conduct interviews if necessary and make all final decisions.

 Similar to HNIP, NAFEO interns participate in orientation programs and seminars on other topics such as financial literacy and civic engagement. Berger says the program also has teamed with HNIP for some networking receptions. 

NAFEO undergraduate interns receive $400 a week, while graduate students are paid $500 per week. Interns who reside outside the Washington area receive a travel allowance, and housing is provided as needed, she says. In addition to summer internships, the program has fall and spring options that students who attend college near Washington often use.  

The summer program had 41 interns, and four students are serving as interns this fall, Berger says. The program is paid for through agreements with participating federal agencies. 

Berger notes that NAFEO created the program due in part to the lack of paid internships in the nation’s capital. While congressional offices and many organizations hire interns, most are not paid. “Because many of our students are low-income, they don’t have the opportunity to have unpaid internships.”

 In addition to the HACU and NAFEO programs, there are other internship offerings available:

  • In summer 2008, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund created an internship program with 30 participants across the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of the Treasury and other sites. Applicants must have GPAs of 3.0 or higher, strong interpersonal and leadership skills and interest in pursuing a graduate degree.
  • For Native American and Alaska Native students, the Morris K. Udall Foundation offers a 10-week summer internship program in Washington. The foundation provides roundtrip airfare, housing, per diem and a stipend at the conclusion of the program. The goal is for participants to learn more about the federal government and issues affecting Indian Country.
  • Also available to American Indian students is the Washington Internships for Native Students program. The initiative is also open to Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, and participants combine study with internships.
  • Founded in 1994, the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies offers internships and fellowships for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Undergraduate and graduate students can work on Capitol Hill or in federal agencies.
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