Photo by Randy Tunnell; Political Creatures: Jeanine DiCesaris (gesturing, at left) and Crystal Macias (at far right) talk policy at a Panetta Institute seminar for congressional interns.

Twenty-two college students are gathered around a rectangle of tables in a florescent-lit room listening to a man lecture about pyramid population schemes and social security. At an age when their contemporaries are going to keggers and rigging beer bongs, these students are intently facing their futures-and the future of the world they live in.

Welcome to the Congressional Internship Program at the Panetta Institute. Students were hand-picked by the presidents of the California State University campuses, Dominican University and Santa Clara University and then shipped to CSUMB for two weeks of intensive prepping for the two months they are now spending as congressional interns in Washington, DC.

I sit down with four such hopefuls in a break between their tight series of lectures at the Panetta Institute. Jeanine DiCesaris, a gregarious blonde in glasses from CSU Sacramento, describes the people in the program as the "non-disillusioned minority" who "want to zero in on how to be the most beneficial."

When I ask Crystal Macias, the CSUMB delegate, if the program is all she expected, she replies, "It''s doing more, actually. This program is intense. We have all these speakers who want us to go to Washington understanding what''s going on. The Panettas want us to benefit from this to the fullest."

In the two weeks the students have spent here, they have heard political experts (not the least of whom is Leon Panetta himself) telling them what to expect and discussing with them the complex root causes of real and troublesome issues. An example of this is a lecture concerning overpopulation in highly developed countries (Japan being one) and how it has caused birthrates to plummet, which means that young people are not replacing the old. Further- more, in nations with excellent social programs, this means the elderly are taking up many of the resources and creating a burden on the younger, smaller work force.

Not really easy to understand as an abstract concept, perhaps, but with diagrams and some helpful clarifications arising from well-phrased questions, the issues of social programs and population control are explained and made understandable.

John Brison, a student from San Luis Obispo, very much wants to be involved in politics, but getting started is difficult. "You can''t just want it, you have to work for it," he says. "And you can''t just work for it, you need someone who can help you."

DiCesaris agrees. "Many of us don''t have the financial resources to become involved in something like this. [Senior Policy Coordinator] David Yamada and the rest of the staff are putting on a really top-notch program. They''re here to help people and better our society."

Many congressional interns, DiCesaris tells me, are rich kids whose parents know the politicians and already have their foot in the door. The Panettas, she says "want to level the playing field and encourage diversity."

CSU Long Beach student Amanda Greenburg adds, "This is an incredible learning experience. We spend a lot of time in school, but this internship is real."

One week of immersion has left these young adults wide-eyed and almost reverent about the experience they''re having. Brison pulls me aside after the lecture has already resumed to say, "There''s a degree of unreality. I wonder, ''Am I really here?'' We all have fundamental ideological differences, but we''re working toward the same end. We all want the same thing."

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At the time of our conversation, the students have another week before they plunge headlong into politics, learning the ropes of D.C. by being there for two and a half months. On October first they left for a taste of something they desperately desire and an experience that will show them if they''re made of strong enough stuff.

Two weeks in a conference room isn''t real-life experience in Congress, so what surprises await the interns in D.C.?

Crystal Macias'' first three days as an intern have shown her that "There are a lot of politicians here to promote positive change, and I both appreciate and honor that quality in them." Macias has been assigned to intern for LA Congresswoman Hilda Solis, whom she describes as "a hard-working, passionate person who fights for environmental [issues], education [...] and the rights of working families. I am very excited to be working for her."

Since the Panetta Institute fully sponsors the students'' stay in Washington, economically challenged kids are able to learn the ropes in the best possible hands-on manner. Her good fortune has been impressed upon her in her scant time here. "The Panetta Institute is unique," Macias says. "Interns that I have talked to from other programs have told me that they had to pay for their own living arrangements, which means that only the [students with parents who can afford it] are able to participate in the program."

Any of these students-or all of them-take some part in the leadership of the country some day. It''s nice to know that their eagerness is being rewarded with the chance to soak in the reality of political life in the capitol-regardless of their parents'' income.

For more information about the Panetta Institute, call 582-4200 or go to www.panettainstitute.org.

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