At 4:45 a.m., Kim Garza wakes up to a loud alarm. Jumping out of bed, she throws on a pair of sweats and heads to the gym.
"I have to work out to take care of myself so I can meet the challenges of the day," she says.
Garza might look like the typical college student, but she's not. Her campus is Washington, D.C., by way of UNT, and her classroom is the West Wing of the White House.
A senior from Beaumont majoring in political science, Garza is part of an elite group of UNT students selected for internships in the nation's capital through the university's NTDC Cooperative Program. Created in 2003, the program connects North Texas students to governmental, nonprofit and private sector opportunities in Washington, D.C.
Because of the program, Garza's childhood dreams of becoming a public servant are being realized.
"When you work a 12-hour day, the job takes a lot out of you," she says. "But it's worth it."
She says her experience working as a congressional intern helped her with what she does now in the White House.
"I learned the ropes in U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess' office in the spring of 2004," she says. "I checked faxes and e-mails and returned calls. I enjoyed talking with constituents from Texas on issues they were passionate about."
Garza then landed the coveted position of White House intern. As an assistant to the White House communications director, she says her job is serious and demanding every moment of the day.
At 7:30 a.m., Garza is at her desk, reading newspapers and scanning Internet sites.
"I gather newspaper clippings that are relevant to the president and to the communications director, and then I prepare a briefing package of clippings."
She says that even menial tasks are important.
"I realized that every e-mail and every note I write will one day end up in an archive," she says.
Garza also takes calls for the communications director from media representatives such as Larry King, Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer.
"I know the news before it comes out, but I don't talk about things that should be held in confidence," she says. "I'm a trusted public servant."
Besides learning about political matters, Garza enjoys being a part of history.
"Working in the West Wing during an election year is a chance of a lifetime," she says. "I'm working in the most powerful house in the world."
15 years of arguments
Over the summer, NTDC intern Christian Alvarado woke up at 6 a.m. each work day, donned a suit and tie, grabbed coffee and caught the Metro for his commute to the Washington office of Sen. John Cornyn.
A junior from Midland majoring in political science, Alvarado wants to be an attorney. He says his stint in Cornyn's office, where he responded to constituents' questions and conducted research used for briefings, gave him
a preview of the profession.
"In one case, I had to look up 15 years of congressional arguments about the Pledge of Allegiance," he says. "I also researched state appropriation issues. It was exhilarating to sit in congressional hearings and realize that my briefings contributed to important debates."
In addition to handling correspondence and research, Alvarado conducted capital tours.
"I really loved giving tours and showing off historical monuments, especially the Supreme Court building," he says. "I loved giving tours to Texans visiting D.C. All Texans are proud of where they came from and bring that with them to Washington."
The first NTDC intern — Sarah Mathis, a Bozeman, Mont., senior majoring in emergency administration and planning — worked in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's Washington office in the fall of 2003. Mathis' day started at 6 a.m. with a three-block walk to the Senate building.
Sarah Mathis and Christian Alvarado interned with Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn through the NTDC program.
"Washington, D.C., is such a beautiful city. You can learn about the world, politics or anything there," she says.
"But the glamour of being a D.C. intern wears off in about the first 30 minutes in the office," she says. "The sudden reality of long hours faces you. At that point, you realize it's all part of the experience."
A national finalist for the distinguished Truman scholarship, Mathis intends to accept a position where she can combine international development policy with disaster relief.
In Hutchison's office, her work focused on gathering information.
"We clipped every article related to Texas or issues important to the senator," she says. "By 10 a.m., we knew if there was any mention of the senator in newspapers, news shows, magazines or Internet sites."
Mathis also helped with editing and fact finding to help Hutchison's press secretary in getting news to the media.
"I knew work was really critical my first day on the job," she says. "That's when a man shipped himself to Dallas on a cargo plane because he didn't have money to book a flight on a passenger plane. Since it happened in Texas and the senator works on issues related to airplane regulations, we had to find out everything we could as fast as we could."
The D.C. classroom
The interns from UNT agree that hard work in a fast-paced environment, as well as exposure to important issues and powerful people, enhanced their education and improved their career choices.
"I learned more about issues and policies during a one-hour Senate hearing than I could have learned in several college classroom sessions," Garza says.
She says her D.C. experiences confirmed that she's pursuing the right path for her future.
"After leaving my White House internship in December, I'm confident that I can return to D.C. and have an opportunity to work for several departments," she says.
Alvarado says his internship experience met all his expectations.
"I love politics and would definitely like to return to D.C. to further my knowledge about the political process," he says.
He says he would recommend the NTDC internship to any UNT student, regardless of career path.
Mathis reflects on the legacy of the internships.
"I've been very pleased to hear about interns who have gone to D.C. after me and how they continue to represent the university and open new doors for other UNT students," she says.
"D.C. is such a political and cultural hub. I definitely want to return there."
NTDC: Inspiring involvement
UNT President Norval Pohl says he has never spoken with a student who did not have a life-changing experience during an NTDC internship.
"Each one of these students carries a new respect for the operation of the federal government and a sense of the necessity of personal involvement in the democratic process," he says.
Two campus divisions — student development and governmental relations — combined forces to offer this unique educational experience for students. Elizabeth With, assistant vice president for student development, and Rey Rodriguez, associate vice chancellor for governmental relations, coordinate the program.
Rodriguez says UNT students now have a pathway of opportunity to experience federal policy and politics.
"These chances are only available for those who find their way to Washington, D.C.," he says. "We reach out into the university community to find our best, brightest, most motivated students who would be interested in opportunities we could never re-create on campus."