'An Eye-Opening Experience': Inside the Washington Program

Class of 2023 Washington Semester Program students pose on the steps of the Capitol in fall 2021.

People — not policy — lie at the heart of the seminal program, now celebrating its 50th anniversary

"In Mexican culture, storytelling is a value we hold very dearly," explains Jaime Perez '23, an Arizona native and child of Mexican immigrants, who spent fall 2021 in the nation's capital as a member of the College's highly competitive Washington Semester Program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Now back on Mount St. James, Perez is brimming with stories about the impact that experience had on him. Here are just a few:

After moving into his apartment in Arlington, Virginia, in August 2021, he took a break from unpacking to go to the Lincoln Memorial and take a photo, identical to one he took alongside his dad in 2015, on his first visit to the city. "I was baffled that I wasn't just there for a weekend trip anymore. I was there for a whole semester, to live there and make the most out of the experience and work in Congress, where I had dreamt of working my whole life," Perez says.

Then there were the many times his boss, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), came out of his office to shoot the breeze and share stories with the interns and legislative assistants. Grijalva represents Perez's hometown third district in the western part of Phoenix and, for Perez, is a sign of hope for inclusive immigration policies in Arizona: "Here's this guy I've been looking up to as my inspiration for being a public servant, and I was met with instant humility. Having the privilege of speaking with the congressman one-on-one, every single time it was a conversation that left me thinking."

And there was the day he answered the phone in Grijalva's office and heard the pleas of a migrant mother who was sick with COVID-19, unable to renew her worker's permit and fearing deportation. Perez immediately connected her with one of the district's case workers, who was able to help get her permit renewed before it expired.

"It reminded me that this government has a capacity to help people — my people, my community," says Perez, who notes he harbored a sense of mistrust and betrayal toward the government after experiencing a family member's deportation to Mexico. "For so long, I had this very twisted perception of what the government actually stood for, because I felt hurt from what it had done to me. But I realized at that moment, as an intern and in the future, I have the capacity to change that, and to build trust and be the resource that people can call on and provide them with the support they need. It was an eye-opening experience."


After he graduates from Holy Cross next year, Perez might go to law school or graduate school, but says wherever he ends up, he wants to pursue leadership, advocacy and politics. It's safe to say that in a matter of months, the Washington Semester Program has steered the trajectory of Perez's future, and for the past 50 years, the same has been true for generations of Holy Cross students. Gary DeAngelis, longtime program director, has had a front row seat to it all.

"The opportunities in Washington, they're extraordinary. I've been doing this for 35 years, for well over 1,000 students, and the biggest part, for me, is to see the impact that it's had on their lives," DeAngelis says. "And not so much the specific internship, or being at a presidential inauguration or things like that — all those are wonderful — but to see the development of these young people; the kind of intellectual and social maturing that takes place among these students has been incredibly impressive. The program has been transformative."

A One-of-A-Kind Approach

Perez is a political science major, as are many of the students who take part in the Washington Semester, yet the focus of the program both encompasses and goes beyond politics, to public policy and the many ways it intersects myriad disciplines and tackles social issues through that lens. DeAngelis says Holy Cross' interdisciplinary focus is one-of-a-kind among collegiate Washington programs; most originate out of a political science or government department. The Holy Cross program is housed in its J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World, the hub through which the College offers experiential learning programs as a way for students to take their education out of the classroom and into the world. DeAngelis also notes the Washington Semester Program is the only one in the U.S., to his knowledge, to welcome students from any academic discipline.

"Many times, when I'm in Washington and describing the program at different agencies, they'll say to me that it is interesting that we have an interdisciplinary program, but ask, 'Where's the continuity?'" DeAngelis says. "Public policy is the glue that holds the program together, whether students are in fine arts and they're working at the Smithsonian, or in science and they work at the National Institutes of Health or the CDC. Public policy impacts every field in the country, and students better know something about it when they go into their career."

Structured in three parts, the Washington Semester is an opportunity for third- and fourth-year students to put what they have learned at Holy Cross into practice. Each student participates in an internship, a weekly public policy seminar and rigorous independent research culminating in a thesis project. DeAngelis calls the thesis the "crown jewel of the program," because it is graduate school-level work that requires a two-hour oral defense at the end of the semester. The student who produces the best thesis of the semester receives the Maurizio Vannicelli Washington Semester Away Program Award, named for the late Vannicelli, Holy Cross political science professor and former Washington Semester director.

Internships vary from media, nonprofits, think tanks or government positions, such as NBC News, The Brookings Institution and the Pentagon, to name a few recent placements.

One constant throughout the program's half century is its small size: Only 20 students are admitted each semester. Keeping the cohort small enables DeAngelis to conduct his twice-per-semester visits to each internship site, an effort that underscores the College's commitment to its students and ensuring an immersive, substantive experience, one that involves more than just fetching coffee or running errands. "I have consistently heard from different agencies during my visits, 'We've been hosting students from different colleges for 20 years and not only are you the first professor I have met with from a college, but you are the first one I've talked with, as well,'" DeAngelis notes.

Gary DeAngelis in his Smith Hall office and David O’Brien, Washington Semester Program founder and professor emeritus of history

"It's like training wheels for adulthood," says Max Lies '17, whose thesis research in D.C. analyzed policy responses to economic crises throughout U.S. history, encompassing both his economics and political science majors. Today, Lies works at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in international affairs, assisting with economic policies that the U.S. has in international settings.

"In Washington, some people align themselves with a particular person or party. I tend to be in the opposite camp, where I like to remain as neutral as possible and stick to expertise and facts," Lies says. "It's been a really cool experience to see both the Trump Treasury versus the Biden Treasury, the happenings from a political standpoint, and how that translates from political will into actual, cogent policy."

From Idea to Action

For many Holy Cross students, the Washington Semester is their first opportunity to see the theories of politics, economics or sociology that they learned on Mount St. James put into practice. And it has been that way since the very first semester of this program, back in the fall of 1971, when Joe McDonough '72 was the first Holy Cross student to study in D.C.

McDonough knew a student program in Washington was in the works and that it wouldn't start until after he graduated, so he took the initiative to secure his own internship with a congressman and pitched the idea of starting the program early to David O'Brien, professor emeritus of history, who spearheaded its creation.

"I already had the political bug, but gaining a real understanding of how you take something that is just an idea and turn it into action, from a political, financial and sociological point, had always mystified me," McDonough recalls. "In Washington, I really did get a sense of the need to build coalitions to gain support to pass a law in the House and then get it through in the Senate. Making those connections between what was policy and how to get something to become law was a real revelation."

McDonough, who is now president of the Massachusetts Fulbright Association, went on to a legal career that took him to the Middle East and China, where he taught law students, trained judges and helped implement internationally accepted law practices. His teaching style, which relies on utilizing case studies and real-world scenarios in group discussions and problem-solving sessions, as opposed to lectures, has its roots in what he experienced during his Washington semester in 1971.

"If there's a common thread, it's really getting an understanding that gaining experience is a critical part to learning, so I gained a whole new respect for experiential education," McDonough says.

'My Window to The World'

Meg Maggio '82, who spent the fall semester of her junior year in D.C. 10 years after McDonough kicked off the program, calls it "my window to the world."

"You take these issues that are very local micro issues, and then you go to D.C. and they become macro national, global issues," she says.

In her internship at the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), psychology major Maggio tackled the issue of prison reform. She accompanied expert witnesses into prisons in Maryland and Virginia, interviewed inmates, and then helped prepare testimony for expert witnesses advocating for alternatives to incarceration at sentencing hearings. Maggio called the experience "eye-opening" and says it inspired her to go to law school at Catholic University, where she spent time interning at the Public Defender's Office for Juveniles and the maximum-security facility for juveniles in the city.

"That was tough. I saw the connection between poverty and illiteracy and the disproportionate incarceration of Black kids in D.C.," Maggio says. "I still think everyone should visit a prison at least once in their life, to really understand fully the urgent need for improving our criminal justice system."

"I still think everyone should visit a prison at least once in their life, to really understand fully the urgent need for improving our criminal justice system."

Meg Maggio '82

During law school, Maggio spent summers working in Asia. She went on to a corporate law career in Beijing and Hong Kong, learned Chinese, started collecting Chinese art and invested in a local art gallery. In 2005, she took a break from law and opened her own gallery, Pékin Fine Arts, with locations in Beijing and Hong Kong. For Maggio, it was a natural evolution from enjoying all the cultural opportunities during her Washington semester.

"I remember being enthralled with the idea that all the Smithsonian museums were free admission, and that D.C. wasn't just a political center, but it was also a cultural center. A lot of America's national treasures are housed in D.C. museums," Maggio says. "I feel like all of it is connected. Holy Cross got me a little bit out of my comfort zone, to go to D.C. Then, I studied and worked in Hong Kong in the summers of law school, eventually moving to Beijing in the summer of 1986. I don't think I would have had the temerity to move there if I hadn't done the semester internship in D.C."

From D.C., Back Home

While Maggio's Washington semester was the springboard for an international career, for Liz Wambui '09, her experience in the program was the impetus to go home and make an impact in Worcester. Wambui's thesis examined globalization and the question, "Does it really lift all boats?" she says. "Certainly, that was not the first time that I was aware of inequities, but that really started the path for me thinking about what I could do for a career that will help address the inequality that we see as a thread through many of our systems."

At that point, Wambui thought she might move back to D.C. after graduation. She interned at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank, and worked at their Boston office after graduation; the experience helped her realize she wanted to work directly with people. Wambui then worked at Easter Seals, the American Red Cross and the Nativity School of Worcester, and today is the director of diversity, inclusion and community impact at construction company Fontaine Bros. Inc., known for erecting one of the first buildings at UMass Chan Medical School, Nelson Place School in Worcester and Worcester South High Community School.

Program alumna Alicia Molt-West ’09, special assistant to President Joe Biden and House legislative affairs liaison, with the president and First Lady Jill Biden.

In addition to compliance reporting, Wambui's role is to help increase gender and ethnic diversity in the workforce through community partnerships and education. It's a change that she hopes has also come to the College's Washington Semester.

"The one thing that was disappointing, and I think that's changed now, but I was the only student of color who went to D.C. that whole school year, not just my semester," Wambui says.

DeAngelis has made a concerted effort over the years to increase diversity in this program, with gains made in recent years. The initial effort was made through the Office of Multicultural Education, with plans to extend this outreach to ALANA students through the Latin American Student Organization, as well as the Africana Studies and Latin American, Latinx and Caribbean Studies concentrations.

What's Next?

In addition to ensuring opportunities for all students, other changes for the Washington Semester include an alumni speaker series that DeAngelis introduced in 2015. Throughout the semester, he invites several Holy Cross alumni in the city to give a talk to current students about the program's impact on their life and the work they are doing now. Recent speakers include John Gannon '66, a 24-year veteran of the CIA, and Alicia Molt-West '09, current special assistant to President Biden and House legislative affairs liaison.

As he looks toward the next phase of the program, DeAngelis wants to increase alumni involvement even further, for the benefit of current students and the alumni themselves.

"I've already seen the value of it, over the years," he says. "It keeps the alumni connected to the College in a more intimate way, and apprised of things that are going on, how the College has changed and what this new generation of students is thinking. This program really comes down to the people. I find it in the students that I've kept in contact with over the years — that's the most rewarding part, sharing in the growing experience with these individuals."