Sep 08, 2023
For two students hailing from tiny hometowns, getting dropped off to intern for a semester in the bustling state capital of New York was a bit of a culture shock.
“I was a little bit starry-eyed when I got to Albany,” said Brevin Austin, a senior political science major from Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania (population 1,108). “Oh my gosh! I’m in the New York state capital working for an assemblyman from New York City.”
But Austin and Hadley Thompson, a double major in journalism and political science from Olcott, New York (pop. 1,241), took only a couple weeks to get acclimated to an experience they both deemed invaluable to helping them determine their potential career paths.
“I come from a small town, and suddenly I’m walking past (Gov.) Kathy Hochul, so it was a bit of a shock at first,” Thompson said. “But eventually, when I walked down the press hallways in the Assembly chambers, that felt right up my alley. I definitely don’t think I want to be a politician, but I realized that after being in the thick of it, this is an arena where I could do good work communicating important issues, whether as a lobbyist or a reporter.”
Austin, too, admitted that pursuing life as a politician isn’t a likely career arc.
“There were some things I saw that left me a little more jaded,” said Austin, whose interest in political policy was piqued in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass school shooting in 2012. “But I also saw enough things that made me more optimistic, things that make me want to pursue working on public policy.”
Political science faculty encouraged Austin and Thompson to apply — via a written essay — for the internship, which earned them a semester’s worth of credits. Tom Buttafarro, the university’s director of Government and Community Relations, was “a big help” in securing housing for the students, they said.
The New York State Assembly Intern Committee sponsors the Session Internship starting every January. It offers college students a chance to participate in state government and the legislative process through a well-structured learning experience. In addition to daily legislative work, interns are assigned research and administrative responsibilities in an Assembly office.
Only coincidentally were Thompson and Austin assigned Assembly members from New York City — although at polar opposite ends of the experience meter.
Austin was assigned to the office of Kenny Burgos (D-Bronx), first elected in 2020 and just 29 years old. Thompson was assigned to William Colton (D-Brooklyn), first elected in 1997 after a 30-year career as a teacher. He’s 77.
What both students witnessed was refreshing. Neither man, they said, is in the political arena for power or money. They simply want to serve the people in their districts.
“Mr. Colton loves what he’s doing and that was such an inspiration to see someone who cares that much and likes their job, even with all this polarization in politics,” Thompson said. “There is so much focus on legislation at the federal level, and then you come here and see politicians doing very granular things for their district.
“Colton was telling me how he made it possible that at voting booths they had to have a Russian translator because they had such a large Russian-speaking population in his district. Those niche, very personal politics were refreshing to see.”
Burgos, in fact, never wanted to run for office, Austin said. People had to convince him to run.
“He told me a number of times, ‘This isn’t a career for me. This is about public service,’” Austin said. “He’s not in it for the job security or for the power. He just wants to serve his community.”
Knowing nothing but vitriolic partisanship since they were young teens, especially at the federal level, both students were genuinely surprised at the collaborative nature they witnessed during their time in Albany.
“I’d say about 90% of the time, you didn’t see that partisanship. I think the average person, if they spent one day in the Assembly, would be shocked at how well they get along,” Austin said. “There would be a bill every now and then that would result in some lively debate, but even when they’d disagree, they were cordial to each other after a decision was made.”
The students were primarily responsible for keeping things running smoothly at their Assembly member’s district offices in Albany, from opening the office each morning, answering the phones and replying to emails, to meeting with lobbyists looking for support for a particular piece of legislation.
The interactions were invaluable, they said.
“As much as there is this political façade around politicians and lobbyists, I realized how important their work is and how important communication and people skills are to working in this environment,” Thompson said.
“What I learned more than anything is how important it is who you talk to and how you talk to them and how you build a collaborative structure between people,” Austin said. “I also learned that even though there are 150 members, each of them doesn’t have an equal say in how things get done.”
SBU students interested in the Session Internship can contact Tom Buttafarro, university liaison to the Assembly internship program, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dr. Mary Rose Kubal, Department of Political Science internship coordinator, at email@example.com.
Students do not need to be political science majors or New York state residents.
About the University: The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University is a community committed to transforming the lives of our students inside and outside the classroom, inspiring in them a lifelong commitment to service and citizenship. St. Bonaventure was named the #5 regional university value in the North in U.S. News and World Report’s 2022 college rankings edition.