At the end of my phone interview with Dan and Laura, I surprised myself with straightforwardness. “This is my first choice for co-op,” I admitted. “If you offer the position to me, I’ll take it.” Like many of my classmates, co-op was a major factor in my overall decision to attend Northeastern. However, when it came down to it, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Despite nearly two years of feeling comfortable with tossing out phrases like “experiential education” and “middler means third year” to well-meaning but confused relatives, I was as unsure as ever during the actual application phase. I pushed my spring co-op to fall. I scoured the jobs database for hours but wasn’t compelled to write half of my cover letters. Eerily reminiscent of the college application process, applying to co-op involved the same amount of stress eating and even more avoiding tough questions.
Where did I see myself in five years? What was the most professional blazer in my closet? What was my greatest weakness?
The uncertainty about the near future started to shift as I began drafting my cover letter for the EPA. This co-op made sense. I’d spent a year thinking deeply about environmental issues, between doing research in a Civil Engineering lab and studying abroad in India. I’d always secretly (or not-so-secretly) fantasized about living in DC. When I got the offer, I told my friends that I was beginning my dream co-op. When they asked me what I would be doing, I didn’t know how to answer.
Three months in, I can answer the what-is-it-exactly-that-you-do question a little bit better. As an intern in the Office of Public Affairs, I’m on the communications side of climate change and environmental protection. Anything that the EPA does in relations to the press and the public is fair game. There is no daily routine here, but my frequent responsibilities include tracking media responses, pitching stories to news outlets and drafting administrative briefings. Sometimes I understand things from a big picture angle, focusing on large-scale regulations and national action weeks. Other times, my viewpoint is small. I learn details about communities through the voices of local newspapers. I get excited about Colorado’s resident environmental reporters.
Instead of counting time by days, weeks and months, in the Office of Public Affairs, I measure time through events. When Kristiene and I arrived, the rollout of the Clean Power Plan happened right away. With it, I witnessed an entire agency come together to solidify some of the most significant climate legislation ever. The amount of news stories surrounding the plan were almost too many to count. The excitement in the agency was palpable. Even in the face of some criticisms, I knew I was a part of something big.
Events became less positive, but remained just as hectic when the Gold King Mine spill occurred. A few weeks after the spill occurred, I began working in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the Public Information Office. Every federal agency has the capability to develop an EOC in the face of an emergency. When the EOC needed an intern, I jumped in and became a part of the efforts to handle media inquiries, post sediment and surface water data and coordinate joint responses between headquarters and local offices. I learned how much I love crisis work.
When I thought things had settled for a bit, the news of Volkswagen’s attempt to cheat emissions testing came out. I attended my first congressional hearing and a cool thing happened: I could predict what questions the politicians would ask. I knew the answers we’d give, too.
Parts of the glamour of working in DC have been balanced out by the realities of an unpaid internship. There are days that I miss the energy of having an on-campus network at my disposal.
However, although I’m not taking classes, I’m learning more than ever here. In just a few months, I’ve built tons of mini-knowledgebase, of public relations software, of mine excavation work, of questions in interviews that don’t have immediate responses, of environmental health, public health and income inequality coalescing. I am grateful. Here, I have many teachers.
During the beginning of this co-op, I sat in a large room with wooden walls and green chairs and I watched EPA administrator Gina McCarthy give a talk to an audience of summer interns. That day she looked out at all of us, mostly undergraduates, some of us graduates, and said that being a college student means looking into the mirror and thinking that it’s possible to change the world. Then, she shared her secret: every day, she still feels like a college student. Being in a co-op at the EPA is so much more than I could have imagined it would be. But, for better or for worse, I feel like a college student too.
Lindsey Bressler, International Affairs & Economics, Co-op at US Environmental Protection Agency