COVID-19 pressures Washington Term to change course

Washington Term expected to move online as COVID contin- ues to pose a problem.

Washington Term may be the next Wash- ington and Lee University tradition forced to pivot because of COVID-19.

While Washington and Lee has not released any official statement on the program’s fate this spring, students and faculty are preparing for the course to go remote due to the virus.

It is unclear when the university will come to a decision.

In a normal year, the highly selective six- week spring term course provides students with the opportunity to intern in Washington, D.C. where they gain experience working in different news organizations, nonprofits or government offices. Traditionally, the pro- gram consists of three parts: an academic course, an internship and a lecture series.

To earn full credit, students must write a research paper and keep an analytical jour- nal on top of their internship responsibilities. Their employers also submit work evaluations.

In the last three decades over 400 students have participated in the program.

“It was one of the things that sold me on W&L,” said Elizabeth Herman, ‘22. The program teaches students the funda- mentals of networking and how to make themselves marketable.

“I would hire a W&L student blind,” Brian Alexander, politics professor and director of the program, said. “The work I’ve seen Washington Term students do is always re- ally good.”

Yet, if the university decides the program should go online as Alexander anticipates, Washington Term will look different than in years past.

Instead of writing a research paper, students will be asked to interview at least a dozen D.C. policy professionals in a focus group report for any congressional organization. Students will also have the chance to obtain a congressional training certification. And, the course has added a new politics film night.

The program’s usual meetings with policy professionals, guest lecturers, and alumni will also continue – just over Zoom.

With these plans in mind, Alexander said he remains optimistic.

“My solution is to make this the best darn virtual Washington Term that it could ever be,” he said.

However, some students said his optimism can only rekindle so much that will be lost if the program goes remote.

“I think you lose a lot of what Washington Term is meant to be in terms of networking,” Ian Bodenheimer, ‘22, said. “It just becomes harder to reach out to someone if you haven’t met them in person.”

Last year’s Washington Term class suf- fered from the same problem. After the pro- gram was forced to cancel because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the students whose internships were moved online reacted sim- ilarly.

“I think you do miss out on a lot of the net- working that you do in person,” said Katana Evans, ‘22, who interned at the Virtual Lead- ership Conference last spring. “The water cooler stuff, you know; the people you meet who are just walking by. When it’s virtual it has to be very intentional and very pro- grammed. It’s pretty exhausting.”

And networking during a pandemic has proven to be difficult for this year’s group

of 16. While the internship-search process would normally be over by now, 25% of students have not secured a position for this spring, Alexander said in an email.

“It’s hard because places that have been steady friends of W&L have entirely can- celled their programs,” Alexander said. “Stu- dents are having to work extra hard this year to find placement.”

Another obstacle for this year’s program is the possibility that some students will have virtual internships while others may secure in-person ones. In this case, there would be no chance of an in-person program.

“It’s a lose-lose every way you turn,” Alex- ander said.

The countless hypotheticals and unknowns are what stand in the way of the university coming to a final consensus for this spring. In the meantime, students await to hear what their time in the program may ultimately look like.

“It is decidedly not up to me,” Alexander said. “Everyone knows the benefits of an in-person Washington Term so I try to com- municate what the opportunities are and what the risks are. In the end, I support whatever decision they make but it’s tough.”