Dr. Daniel E. Ponder, is the L. E. Meador Professor of Political Science and Director of the Meador Center for Politics and Citizenship Drury University. He received his B.S. in Political Science in 1989 from Southwest Missouri State University and his Ph.D. in Political Science from Vanderbilt University in 1994. He served as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs from 1993-2000, and then as an associate professor at UCCS from 2001-2006. Dan teaches courses on American politics, the presidency, Congress, Constitutional Law, and statistical methods. He is the author of Good Advice: Information and Policy Making in the White House, which was a nominee for the Neustadt Prize. Additionally, he has written several published book chapters, articles, and essays in journals such as Presidential Studies Quarterly, Congress and the Presidency, Political Science and Politics, and International Journal of Public Administration.
Recently, Dan reflected on his undergraduate studies at Southwest Missouri State.
When I was an undergraduate at (S)MSU, I was having difficulty deciding what to do with my life. If the St. Louis Cardinals were not to come calling (and there was no evidence of that) I spent a lot of time wondering how I could best put my deep interest in politics to work both for the greater good and for myself (we have to earn a living, right)? I considered everything from being a civil servant to journalism, from being a lawyer to lobbying, or maybe consulting. After I got a job in the political science department as a work study student, I began to consider another career option–that of a college professor. I got to see first hand how professors went about their work, the creativity they employed as they chose from a nearly infinite number of fields and topics from which to choose, write, think, and teach.
But my career plans did not fully solidify until the Spring 1988 semester, when I was selected to participate in an internship program in state government in Jefferson City. There I saw how politics (yes, politics) was made. I saw legislation formed, proposed, accepted and rejected. I saw the relationships that were sometimes steadfast, often fluid, and nearly always creatures of expediency. I think the thing that most intrigued me was when I compared what I saw on a day-to-day basis with what the literature and the textbooks told me to expect. Naturally, as one would hope, most of it was spot-on and it was probably the same as what I would think a bird watcher does when she spots a particular species of bird and identifies it in a book. But what was even more interesting was seeing how things happened that were not well covered in books. I saw a lot of lawmaking go on in the committee rooms and the floor of the House; but I also saw a lot that was made outside the committee rooms, in the hallways, over lunch or dinner, at receptions (as the legislative assistant to a powerful budget committee member, I was actually lobbied at one of these events), often with plain talk or strong armed tactics. I saw how context mattered and shaped outcomes, I saw intra-party bickering more so than inter-party arguments, and much more. In short, I saw how politics worked. I briefed the media on a welfare-to-work bill, and helped actually craft a bill that reformed the juvenile justice system. All of this was heady work for a 21 year old kid. I was intrigued. Still, the experience helped me decide that I did NOT want to be a politician after all, but rather further solidified my desire to go to graduate school, get a PhD, and as my professors at (S)MSU did, think, write, and teach about politics. I felt it was in the classroom helping people think through problems (and having them help me think through them too!) that my passion lay.
And that is precisely what internships should do. Yes, if you do a good job you can get a good line on your resume’ and hopefully a great recommendation letter and some contacts. All of these are integral to the internship experience. But they can also help you clarify your career goals in the first place, shaping what you want to do, how you want to do it, and even how you can get there. Now, as a professor I have directed internship programs in Colorado and now back here in my hometown. I am now the Director of the newly established Meador Center for Politics and Citizenship, and one of the things that center does is to support Drury students as they embark on internships. Right now, we direct internships mostly for students interested in going to Washington, DC, but we are trying to get more students from southwest Missouri involved in state government and intern in Jefferson City.
I encourage you to find an internship and do what you can to make it work. From my years watching interns in Colorado and Missouri learn and grow, as well as my own personal experience, I can almost guarantee that an internship will help you in all the ways you thought it would, and in many ways you didn’t!