History Alumnus Mentors Students on Public Policy in Rare Internship
By Sarah Gibbons | Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
In the Blue Wall on a rainy morning late in the Spring 2017 semester, Robert S. LaRussa ’76 recalls how his time at UMass Amherst helped him carve a path through law school to the D.C. newspaper beat to the White House. He’s on campus to meet with three students he mentors through a research-based internship developed with the department of history, and recalls the important skills he acquired as a history major.
“Communication skills are everything,” says LaRussa. “By that I mean being able to write. Not only being able to write, being able to write precisely and clearly in a manner that is designed to inform,” he clarifies. “UMass is really where I learned to write like that,” he says, crediting the “intense research and writing experience,” of producing a hundred-plus page history thesis with instilling in him the invaluable skill of writing.
In this way, he says, UMass changed his life. After graduating with a degree in history and attending law school, LaRussa made his way to Washington D.C., where he covered the U.S. Supreme Court as a journalist. From there, he got a job as an aide to a Congressman who became chair of the ways and means committee—a committee that, among other things, is focused on international trade, which became LaRussa's area of expertise. His position as a political operative in congress led him to the Clinton campaign and then to the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration. LaRussa spent the next eight years working there, eventually receiving the appointment of Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade. He now handles international trade negotiations at the global law firm Shearman and Sterling.
LaRussa’s affinity with the UMass department of history first brought him back to campus in 2016 to address a crowd of history majors interested in public policy, and ultimately to develop the Robert S. LaRussa International Relations and Public Policy History Internship. The internship gives history majors insight into how history, politics, economics, and legislative processes in Washington shape public policy.
Working with Mark Roblee, the History department’s internship and career advisor, LaRussa started to outline a research-based internship. But there were so many possibilities for research topics, he didn’t know what the central focus should be. Then the 2016 presidential election happened.
“The North American Free Trade Agreement became a big issue in the election,” He explains. NAFTA, he says, “was symbolic for a lot of working-class people … [of] bad decisions that led to their job losses. My own view is that’s not accurate.” So LaRussa directed the students’ research focus toward NAFTA, asking the questions: What’s real? What’s not real? What’s the impact of globalization? What can be done about it?
Three history majors were selected to participate in the internship’s pilot year: Brooke Parziale ‘17; Graham Steele-Perkins ‘17; and Frank Shulze ‘17. Each of them approached their research on NAFTA from a different perspective. Parziale focused the impact of NAFTA from the perspective of the Mexican government, media, and people. Steele-Perkins wanted to figure out how NAFTA became an issue at the forefront of the 2016 election, and specifically why Donald Trump's anti-trade rhetoric resonated with people who voted for him. And Shulze analyzed NAFTA’s effect on the votes of blue-collar workers in Michigan counties that traditionally sway democrat, but flipped in 2016.
Their task? To produce a succinct and fact-driven paper outlining their area of research.
Beyond the substance of policy, LaRussa focused his interns’ attention on their writing, providing them with a two-page primer of things to do and not to do. “I told them, ‘It’s different than academic writing. This paper should be a little more functional,’” says LaRussa.
‘’My goal is to give them an understanding of Washington, of how it works, and how to get a job there,” LaRussa explains. But he also wants each intern to leave with a product—their research paper—that demonstrates an ability to analyze and operate in the “real world,” and impress potential employers.
Staffers working on Capitol Hill or for the Secretary of Commerce, Treasury, or Agriculture, need to have the ability to absorb scads of dense information, digest it into an easy-to-read brief, and support it with in-depth background and analysis. LaRussa compares this style of writing with journalism, explaining, “The most important thing I ever learned in journalism is not to bury your lead.”
The interns back this up, each of them citing research, writing, and clear communication among the skills bolstered by the internship. Steele-Perkins underscores the benefits of acquiring succinct writing skills, saying, “this internship will allow me to demonstrate to employers—hopefully foreign affairs related—that I am capable of dissecting a problem until I really understand it, and am then able to communicate my thoughtful analysis of the causes of a problem, and possible solutions.”
The Robert S. LaRussa International Relations and Public Policy History Internship will continue in the Fall 2017 semester, and is open to all history majors. The next cadre of interns will also focus their research on NAFTA, because, according to LaRussa, “the 2016 election and its ramifications are just beginning to affect the entire world.”
Students of history learn to think critically, analyze historical materials, and challenge narratives of the past. The rare opportunity this internship presents—along with LaRussa’s expertise—allow them to apply their discipline to real world events, interpreting them as they happen in real time.