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Fellowship at the Capitol

by Caitlin Gipson

Few political science majors directly influence California lawmakers immediately upon graduation, but two APU alumni do just that. As part of the Capital Fellows Program, a highly competitive fellowship at the State Capitol, Jonathan Hughes ’13 and Hannah Marrs ’11 are spe­­­­­­nding almost a full year researching legislation, writing speeches, and briefing legislators on the issues that face California.

Chosen from a pool of more than 1,400 applicants, Hughes and Marrs are the first APU students to secure places in the prestigious program, which has graduated U.S. senators and congressmembers, California senators and assembly members, and California Supreme and Superior Court judges since its inception in 1957. “Every legislative office employs at least one former fellow,” said Marrs. “Elected officials call the program their farming for future staffers.”

Administered through California State University, Sacramento (CSUS), the program accepts 64 fellows for executive, judicial, and legislative posts. Rated by vault.com and Forbes as 1 of the country’s top 10 internships, the Capital Fellows Program offers a monthly stipend, full benefits, and paid graduate enrollment in CSUS’s government program.

“The program provides an opportunity for individuals to directly participate in the legislative process and is an important training ground for future legislative staff and public servants,” said Assembly Member Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo). Jonathan Hughes serves as a staffer in his office, which represents the 44th District. “As an educator myself, I recognize the importance of pursuing academic and professional opportunities simultaneously. This is part of what makes the fellowship one of the most prestigious professional internship programs in the country.”

The program provides participants with an in-depth view of the practical side of the political system. “Our visits to state-owned facilities like the CHP training facility, the Delta waterway system, and death row at San Quentin really bring California’s political issues to life,” said Hughes, referring to the site tours that make up part of the program’s intensive six-week orientation. “It’s one thing to see issues on the news,” said Marrs, who serves in the office of Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) of the 37th District, “but visiting the locations and meeting the people that these laws affect has really changed how I look at policy. When I see the faces behind the numbers, the impact of the legislation becomes more real.”

Hughes and Marrs shoulder impressive levels of responsibility. “Hannah is heavily involved in many pieces of legislation, gives opinions, and takes meetings by herself,” said Senator Walters. “She has taken on extensive responsibilities much earlier than many other fellows could.” Likewise, Hughes writes speeches, takes meetings with lobbyists, and has “staffed a committee” (the industry term for preparing a legislative member to address a specific bill).

Both seek to make a difference in their roles. “I’ve staffed two bills to curb human trafficking in California that I hope will have an impact,” said Marrs. While one died in committee, the second (SB 1085) recently passed through the Senate Committee on Public Safety and on to the Appropriations Committee—an important first step to seeing it become law. “I’m relying on God’s guidance—I know that I can’t push a bill through on my own strength.”

Hughes also stressed the importance of civic engagement among believers at all levels of government. “We need to look at governance from a God-honoring, Kingdom-minded perspective. Law and policy influence California’s people so heavily that it’s critical for Christians to take part in the discourse.”

Hughes’ commitment to his faith has not gone unnoticed. “I am proud to have Jonathan as an integral member of my staff,” said Assemblyman Gorell. “I have been very impressed by his integrity, work ethic, communication skills, and demonstrated maturity through his stable devotion to his faith and sense of purpose.”

The alumni plan to work in politics after the fellowship ends and credit the Capital Fellows Program with honing their interests. “I hope to be a communicator within policy,” Marrs said. “I’m passionate about connecting constituents with policymakers, and making legislative language understandable for average citizens.”

For Hughes, the program has increased his interest in local government. “Policy meets the nuts and bolts of people’s lives in local city government. I’d like to stay in Sacramento for a few years, then settle down in a smaller community and run for local elected office.”

To that end, this time at the Capitol provides one of the best political currencies: connections. “The fellowship opens incredible doors,” said Marrs. “In addition to connecting with the senator on a daily basis, I can talk to anyone in the building. Republican or Democrat, they are universally willing to go out of their way to have lunch or coffee with me. I end up learning from both the politicians and their staffers.”

“The fellowship program gives public servants the opportunity to help young people get engaged in their government,” said Sen. Walters. “And at the same time, our fellows are such an asset. They bring a different perspective than other staffers and connect us to what young people are thinking.”

According to Hughes, that personal connectedness represents the key, both with legislators and constituents. “At APU, I learned that politics is all about relationships, and this experience exemplifies that,” said Hughes. “In the end, we’re all working toward the same goal—making California a better place to live and work. It’s about how you can connect with others, meet their needs, and ultimately shine the light of Christ.”

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and search engine optimizer in Reedley, California. apucaitlin@gmail.com

Originally published in the Summer '14 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).