When 21-year old urban studies major Kayla Scoggin steps off the stage at spring commencement, she’ll step into preparations for the role of community health educator with the Peace Corps in Uganda. Upon arrival, she’ll undergo intensive language training and be coached on the intricacies of health care and medical services in an international setting.
Even with the specialized training in Africa, Scoggin said her experience with Pennsylvania state legislators as a University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics intern is one of her greatest advantages going into Uganda.
“Knowing the back ends of bureaucratic matters will help me to understand how the Peace Corps works structurally. Also, I learned a lot from working with constituents and understanding their needs and connecting those needs with other resources or other helpful pieces of information. That will probably be the crux of my service in Peace Corps,” she said.
Scoggin didn’t imagine herself to be working in Senator Pam Iovino’s office, or any other political office, when she came to Pitt. The Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, native had her sights set on a career in the medical field and didn’t see how that tied to government. However, after taking the Department of History’s Global Health History: Historical Perspective as a general education requirement, she realized her goals were far more in line with public policy than she originally imagined.
“I just had never understood how inherently political everything health related is, whether you’re talking domestic insurance and access, but also on a global level, in terms of international aid. As I started going through classes I realized that maybe biology pre-med is not for me,” she said.
When she made the switch to the urban studies program in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, an advisor steered her toward the Institute of Politics Internship and Seminar, which is administered by the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum. The internship, which has placed more than 750 students with elected officials across the region since 1990, has become one of the Forum’s most vital programs.
The Forum was created in 2014 by Elsie and Henry Hillman in an effort to preserve Elsie’s legacy of civic engagement. Since that time, it has taken over administration for the Institute of Politics Internship and Seminar and launched four other programs: the Elsie Hillman Honors Scholars Program, the Legislator for a Day Program, the Never a Spectator Campus Event and the graduate Ambassadors for Civic Engagement Fellowship.
Meredith Mavero, Institute of Politics manager of student programs and community outreach, said students from a range of majors gravitate toward the internship, some due to passion for social causes, others seeking notable experiences to give them an edge in the job hunt. The team asks students if they have partisan leanings and whether there are hot-button issues they feel they could not work to support before being placed with an office.
They also ask which political issues best fit into their future aspirations, but rarely find placements that fit as well as Scoggin’s.
“We ask what kind of policy interests they have and try to make placements accordingly, but it’s relatively uncommon where a student already has that fleshed out,” she said.
Emilie Yonan, community affairs manager for Iovino’s office, said knowing Scoggin’s interest in the intersection between health care and public policy helped the office to steer her toward the most relevant and timely issues.
“Kayla worked with our legislation tracking system and would help to maintain it. She would synthesize information from various groups or information about specific bills and would create briefs for the senator every day she was in session,” she explained. “We tried to have her work with more public health related legislation or research. She wrote memos that were helpful in providing background information on legislation.”
The experience didn’t take Scoggin to the State Capitol, but she had the opportunity to play the role of a legislator during the internship seminar’s final activity.
“Instead of having a final, we do a mock legislative committee meeting,” said Nello Giorgetti, one of the adjunct professors teaching the Institute of Politics Internship Seminar. “Halfway through the semester I’ll give them a piece of legislation then I’ll assign roles as members of the Pennsylvania State House. They act out the roles, present the legislation and we see what happens, if it passes or fails.”
The legislative crash course showed Scoggin the value of public policy roles that can impact the lives of entire populations for the long term—a concept she hopes to apply during Peace Corps.
“I never wanted to do eco-tourism, or volun-tourism, or something where you go in for a short amount of time and it’s not sustainable,” she said. “I know you can’t make huge changes in 27 months, but I’m a lot more likely to do something more sustainable with Peace Corps.”
Giorgetti said no matter where on earth a career in public health takes Scoggin, her background in local government can always serve as a compass.
“We live our lives locally, we don’t live internationally,” Giorgetti said. “It only helps to understand that when she goes to Uganda and she’s dealing with the locals. It may be an international situation, but you’re dealing with local things once you’re in Uganda.”