“An undergraduate education is about much more than what occurs in the classroom,” said David Earnest, Ph.D., Odeen-Swanson Distinguished Professor and chair of the political science department. “That’s why we are diligent in placing our students in impactful internship opportunities. Internships provide students with not only relevant experience, but also with the professional and personal growth that complements academic achievement.”

While students are encouraged to pursue at least one internship during their undergraduate years, many students surpass that expectation, often holding multiple internships before rounding out their time at the state’s flagship university.

This happens to be the case for sophomore political science and legal studies student Madisen Vetter. In just her second semester at USD, Vetter held the only intern position with Gov. Kristi Noem’s office during the 2023 legislative session. After completing that experience, she hopped right into another internship, working with South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley the summer before her sophomore year.

These real world-experiences, Vetter said, are not only preparing her with the skills she needs to succeed in her future, but they are also helping her build an invaluable network of connections in the South Dakota political landscape.

“I am getting the chance to meet and learn from some of the most successful employees in the state at the young age of 19,” said Vetter, who plans to attend law school after graduating. “I have met so many incredible people and these are relationships that will stick with me for years to come.”

Vetter isn’t the only political science student who has gained valuable experience from internship experiences in the state’s capital. In fact, over half of the internships in the South Dakota state legislature during the 2023 legislative session were held by USD students, a testament to both the aspirations of the students and the commitment of political science faculty in helping them reach their goals.

“Our long-term partnership with the state legislature and the Legislative Research Council attests to the excellence of our students and the dedication of their faculty mentors,” said Earnest. “The success of internship placements illustrates how we are preparing the leaders who will solve tomorrow’s most pressing challenges.”

At the heart of the internship program’s success is an engaged community of alumni who are eager to support current students through mentorship, internship opportunities and more, as they recognize the pivotal role of the political science department and early internship opportunities in their professional pursuits.

A headshot of Dylan Kirchmeier. Growing up in rural South Dakota, Department of Political Science and Knudson School of Law alumnus Dylan Kirchmeier '17, '20, J.D., has always had a mind for public service, and his time at the state’s flagship university helped him turn that mindset into a career.

As an undergraduate student at USD, Kirchmeier held an internship with the legislature that gave him “a front row seat to the process in South Dakota” and was highly influential in directing him toward a career in public service.

Today, Kirchmeier serves as a state’s attorney for Roberts County in South Dakota, and while this role doesn’t require him to work directly with the legislature, his undergraduate internship experience provided him with a stable legal foundation, nonetheless.  

“Instead of seeing how the laws are made, I’m the one tasked with enforcing them once the legislature puts them through,” said Kirchmeier. “Knowing the process on how bills work their way through and how to interpret the language the way it’s written helps me understand how to correctly read statutes in my current job.”

As a state’s attorney in a rural area, Kirchmeier is most proud of his role in “delivering a just outcome for victims of crimes."

“Being able to show them that someone is recognizing what they’ve gone through and helping them reach some sort of closure is something I’m proud of,” he said. “Obviously, it’s never going to change what happened to them, but I have the ability to at least do something to bring justice and help them move forward.”

A headshot of Anna Madsen.Another graduate of the department, Anna Madsen ’18, originally from Minnesota, found herself in a career that’s nearly identical to an internship experience she had while at USD.

Madsen currently serves as a senior legislative research analyst for the South Dakota Legislative Research Council. In this position, she is responsible for non-partisan legal research and a majority of the bill drafting for all 105 state legislators. What she is most proud of in her work is her role in finding solutions to improve communities across the state.

“It’s like a puzzle we’re trying to solve. A legislator comes to us with the problem they're having, and we work to figure out how to find a solution to it,” said Madsen. “Sometimes you have to get really creative on how to do that, but it’s pretty cool that we get to help all legislators find solutions for the districts they’re representing and help the people of South Dakota.”

Before graduating from USD, Madsen spent two summers abroad, interned with a South Dakota senator and held a legislative internship during legislative session. It was the latter experience that draws direct parallels to the work she does today.

“After my time interning in Pierre, I was like ‘I love this. This is fascinating,'" she continued. “That experience was a direct track to where I am today.”

Madsen said another unique aspect of her role is that she has the opportunity to personally work with USD legislative interns during session. Last year, she served as one of the internship coordinators for South Dakota's Legislative Research Council internship program, allowing her to mentor students who are in the exact position she once was.

“It was a great way to not only meet USD students and connect with them but also to strengthen those ties and find ways to make our internship program more impactful,” said Madsen. “It’s important for me, as an alum, to give back to the internship program at USD because it was so instrumental in getting me to where I am today.”

Once benefitting from the generous support and mentorship from those who came before them, alumni often develop a pay-it-forward mentality and commit to giving back to current students, either by providing mentorship or by creating and sharing internship opportunities.

A headshot of Jacob Selgestad. Now an analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington D.C., alumnus Jacob Selgestad '19 understands firsthand the crucial role of alumni connections in landing an internship as an undergraduate. During his time at USD, Selgestad said he directly benefitted from the alumni network, as one of his internship experiences was intentionally designed to be filled by a USD student.

“Alumni taking that kind of initiative to help set up experiences and opportunities for USD students that would otherwise not exist is a perfect example of how the political science alumni network supports students."

“Our alumni in the state and across the country continue to pay it forward by assisting in placing our interns in impactful experiences near and far,” said Eric Jepsen, Ph.D., professor of political science. “They help with professional networking in the state, region and country, and serve as consequential mentors to our students.”

Another way alumni pay it forward is by donating to the Farber Fund. Established in 1976 in honor of William “Doc” Farber, the fund provides students in the department with opportunities to study abroad and pursue internship experiences to further their academic and professional development. With nearly $100,000 given out to students across the department each year, the funds could not be sustained without the generous support of alumni and friends of the university.

"The Department of Political Science is beyond grateful for the Farber Fund and for the opportunities it provides for our students every year," said Earnest. "Started by Doc Farber, this fund continues to grow and support our students thanks to generous alumni and friends of the university. The Farber Fund is what makes our department stand out across the state and region, and it is what sets our students up for success both during their time at USD and after they graduate."

For the last decade, Jepsen has led the internship program and has played an instrumental role in finding experiential learning opportunities for students in the department.

“If you have the motivation, Dr. Jepsen will find you an internship, and as a somewhat aimless student in my early college career, Dr. Jepsen’s support in identifying and landing internships and developmental opportunities was incredibly helpful,” said Selgestad.

“Dr. Jepsen’s ability to consistently place students in internships, paired with the support available from the Farber Fund, puts USD political science department students in a uniquely strong position to pursue growth opportunities that will pay dividends for them as they begin their professional careers,” Selgestad continued.

While the role Jepsen plays in helping students secure real-world experiences cannot be overlooked, the success of the internship program in the political science department cannot be attributed to one single person, entity or factor. Rather, a collective effort driven by dedicated faculty and ambitious students, as well as invaluable financial support through the Farber Fund, converge to create transformative opportunities for students.

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