UGA solidifies its presence in nation’s capital

Bernadette Green stands in a narrow hallway of the U.S. Capitol, as Sen. Johnny Isakson prepares to film two 45-second videos. The senior public relations major created memos to prepare Isakson and now reiterates key points, standing by press secretary Amanda Maddox, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 2010 with a journalism degree. With one take each, Isakson (also a UGA alumnus) returns to the Senate chambers.

Later that afternoon, Green tweets photos from Isakson’s meeting with Bulldog legend Herschel Walker in the senator’s office. When another senator had an opening for a press assistant, Isakson recommended Green. She moved into the full-time, paid position in March, two months before her May graduation from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

UGA in Washington(UGA’s new Delta Hall provides ample space for studying and relaxing. The three-story building was constructed in 1931 and purchased by the UGA Foundation in 2013. Cooper Carry/Josh Meister photo)

“We’re all getting opportunities, and they’re great opportunities,” Green says.

Green was among the first students – a group of 29 – to live in UGA’s Delta Hall this spring. The $12 million residential learning community houses UGA in Washington, the overarching term for the university’s various programs that extend UGA’s mission of teaching, research and service into the nation’s capital and offer students new opportunities year-round. UGA in Washington and Delta Hall will serve as home base for the Congressional Agricultural Fellowship Program, offered through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; the Washington Semester Program; Honors in Washington and additional opportunities for UGA students.

“As you look around the building, one point will become immediately clear: Delta Hall is a premier facility, providing students with all of the amenities they need to live and learn in Washington, D.C.,” says UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “The true value of this facility, however, lies not in its design, but in the life-changing learning experiences it will facilitate for UGA students.”

Birth of the Washington Semester Program

UGA first established a presence in Washington, D.C., in 1997 with the start of the Congressional Agricultural Fellowship program. The university’s footprint expanded in 2002 with the introduction of the Honors in Washington program. Several other schools and colleges followed with their own academic and internship programs, and in 2008, UGA made internship opportunities in the city available to all undergraduate students through the Washington Semester Program.

UGA in Washington(President Jere W. Morehead and UGA Foundation Trustee Bill Young Jr. pose with a rendering of Delta Hall at the building’s dedication Feb. 26. Young was instrumental in arranging the purchase of the facility, located in the heart of Capitol Hill. Dennis Kan photo)

“It’s very important for the University of Georgia to have a permanent residence and program in Washington, D.C.,” says alumnus Bill Young Jr., UGA Foundation trustee and immediate past chair, who helped arrange the purchase of the building.

With Delta Hall, UGA joins institutions such as Stanford, Cornell and the University of California system with facilities in D.C.

“What this building does, it solidifies the program and it gives our students the foundation and the sense of place that they need to fully leverage the experiential learning options that are available in the form of internships,” says John Spalding, chair of the UGA Foundation who earned his bachelor’s degree in 1982 and Juris Doctor in 1985 from UGA.

And the students, in turn, increase UGA’s visibility in D.C., says Andrew Dill, UGA’s director of federal relations.

“[The students] become such a big part of our mission because most of them are working on Capitol Hill, and they are the best advocates and the best promoters that we have,” he says.

Hosting government leaders and other key policy influencers at Delta Hall has a payoff for students too, he says.

Delta Hall(Delta Hall sits on a residential street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood less than a 10-minute walk to the Capitol. Cooper Carry/Josh Meister photo)

“The ability for them to easily connect with their elected leaders inside the place where they live is such a unique opportunity,” Dill says. “If a member of Congress is having a breakfast there, and they’re able to connect with him… For a student, I’m just not sure it gets much better than that.”

Delta Hall is a homey brick Colonial befitting Washington’s history. It sits on a residential street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, near Stanton Park and a statue of Nathanael Greene that points in the direction of the U.S. Capitol, less than a 10-minute walk away. Constructed in 1931 as a church society and club, the three-story, 20,000-square-foot building served as home to the American Society of Interior Designers before the UGA Foundation purchased the facility in 2013.

The purchase and renovation of Delta Hall was funded by private gifts to the UGA Foundation and without a single state dollar, according to Morehead. Trustees undertook a fundraising campaign to raise $12 million for an unrestricted endowment. The investment earnings from the endowment will be used to pay off the debt and then will be used in perpetuity to support UGA in Washington.

The building was named in honor of a $5 million grant from the Delta Air Lines Foundation in support of UGA in Washington. The grant also funds a lecture series and internships.

Inside Delta Hall(During spring semester, 29 students in the Washington Semester Program resided in Delta Hall. The residential learning community features classroom and study space, common living areas, conference rooms, kitchens and suite-style rooms. Cooper Carry/Josh Meister photo)

The opening of Delta Hall marks the first time UGA students have been able to live, study and take classes under the same roof while interning in the nation’s capital, and UGA pride is evident in its decor. The university’s seal is above the red front door, which opens to exposed brick and red walls and chairs with “G” logos. The building includes classroom and study space, common living areas, conference rooms, kitchens and suite-style rooms. Delta Hall can accommodate up to 32 students each semester in dorm-style rooms, in addition to staff housing and two guest suites.

During spring semester, students in the Washington Semester Program (WSP) were the first to reside in Delta Hall. From 17 majors, they represented UGA in full-time internships with members of Congress, federal agencies, think tanks, nonprofits, PR firms, public policy and legal centers, broadcast outlets and museums.

Morehead, who also founded the Honors in Washington program in 2001 during his tenure as director of the Honors Program, started the WSP to expand experiential learning opportunities for all undergraduates.

“Our students needed a more sustained and structured way of participating in internships and learning opportunities in the nation’s capital,” he says.

The UGA Foundation awarded more than $50,000 in scholarships for the 2014-15 academic year. The Foundation also is seeking gifts to support more scholarships for D.C.-bound students.

“I want to make sure that in the long term this is a program that any student at the University of Georgia can aspire to participate in, and that finances will not be a barrier to a student achieving their dream of going to Washington, D.C., and living and learning there,” Morehead says.

The WSP combines demanding internships – at least 30 hours a week and typically unpaid – with rigorous coursework. At least two nights a week, students meet in Delta Hall’s ground-floor classrooms to take classes in law, political science and journalism. Some remain in their suits and skirts while others trade business attire for yoga pants and slippers. The classes last up to three hours, then some students congregate in glass-enclosed conference rooms and lounge areas to read, study and write papers.

UGA in Washington(Betty Hudson (second from right) talks with (from left) senior Stephanie Lightfoot, senior Jackie Ryback, senior Javier Trejo and junior Megan Smith after leading a seminar for WSP during spring. Hudson (ABJ ’71) is chief communications officer of the National Geographic Society. Peter Frey/UGA photo)

The upper-level classes bring a uniquely D.C. perspective to academics, says WSP Director Don DeMaria. During spring semester, Paul Kurtz, associate dean and J. Alton Hosch Professor Emeritus in the UGA School of Law, taught “Supreme Court and the Constitution,” and Frank LoMonte, a UGA Law alumnus and executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, taught “Social Media and the Law.” Students also attend events, such as panel discussions at the Newseum and artist talks at the Smithsonian, and are encouraged to experience activities such as Supreme Court oral arguments.

“This is the busiest they will ever be as an undergrad,” DeMaria says. “If they’re not tired, I didn’t do my job or they didn’t do theirs.”

This summer, students in the Congressional Agricultural Fellowship through CAES, Honors in Washington and the new Grady @ D.C. will occupy Delta Hall.

CAES Dean Scott Angle is looking forward to having the students together even after work hours.

“Because they would all scatter out and live in a different place, we never had the ability to hold them together as a cohort,” he says. “What we can do now-since they all live in the same place and all have essentially the same schedules-we’ll be able to bring seminars in for them, to bring guest speakers, to take them out to lunch and to dinner, and to have visitors with an agricultural background come interact with them on a fairly regular basis.”

Living at the same location will naturally create tighter bonds among the students, says David Williams, director of UGA’s Honors Program.

“Having Delta Hall as a place to call ‘home away from home’ facilitates personal relationships and helps develop a stronger sense of community. Each student will get to hear and learn about others’ internships and daily experiences, which will broaden their own understanding of our nation’s capital.”

“You want to do your best”

“Work starts now,” says Nylah Oliver, a junior digital and broadcast journalism major interning at Voice of America, a broadcast network funded by the U.S. government. It’s around 8:45 a.m., and Oliver grabs a copy of a daily paper outside a Metro station entrance within view of the Capitol. While she waits each day for the train, she looks for stories that may appeal to Voice of America’s international audience.

“You feel proud of your school, so you want to do your best,” she says.

Chris Devine, a senior majoring in political science and international affairs, says interning in Isakson’s office confirmed his decision to work in energy policy. He was among five UGA interns working for the senator during spring.

UGA in Washington(Junior Nylah Oliver poses on the set at Voice of America while “Africa 54” host Vincent Makori prepares for a broadcast. During her internship this spring, Oliver ran the teleprompter and did voice-over work for “Africa 54,” a TV news show broadcast in Africa. Peter Frey/UGA photo)

“The Washington Semester Program is a meaningful program for students at a critical time in their life,” Isakson says. The senator, who attended the dedication of Delta Hall in late February, adds that the facility is a “godsend” for the interns because of the security and quality of affordable living arrangements.

Before 2015, UGA students lived in apartments in The Congressional on Capitol Hill, offered through Washington Intern Student Housing. UGA also had to secure other places to hold nighttime classes.

Living together gives students a support system that even some employers say they appreciate UGA providing. During orientation, the students learn how to navigate the city, where to buy groceries and other tips so they can focus on their internships.

“I could not have asked for a better living situation in D.C.,” says Trang Nguyen, an Avalere Health intern and Foundation Fellow pursing her bachelor’s in communication studies and master’s in health policy and management.

Senior Torie Ness, who received a public policy fellowship offered by Isakson’s office and the School of Public and International Affairs, did not want to pass up a D.C. internship and the chance to work on veterans’ issues for Isakson, chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She plans to be a lobbyist.

“I’ve got to learn how things work on The Hill. Working on The Hill is an integral part of my plan,” she says. “I’ve got realistic work-world experience, and I haven’t even graduated.”

Former UGA interns now work for congressmen, the federal government – including the departments of Homeland Security and State-and for consulting, government relations and PR firms.

“My replacement is probably going to be one of these interns,” Isakson says.

– Lori Johnston

This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Georgia Magazine.