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Practicing Leadership at the Tennessee State Capitol

Written by Mary Beth Nehls (2021)

Major: Economics

Barely one day after I had finished my final exams, officially completing my first year as a college student, I packed up my bags and moved to Nashville to begin a 3-month-long political internship with the Tennessee Republican Party. While I wasn’t entirely sure what the internship would have in store for me, I never once felt unprepared or fearful that I wouldn’t succeed. I was confident the Honors Leadership Program (HLP) had prepared me for this opportunity. I had just spent my first year at the University of Tennessee exploring my personal leadership style, identifying my conflict management method, and learning how to make a difference in my community. I had taken classes where I studied ethical leadership, attended workshops where I learned about being a leader in a diverse world, and was immersed in a community of other student leaders who exposed me to new viewpoints. As a member of the first cohort of the HLP, I felt prepared to tackle any task the internship threw my way.

When I first applied and was accepted into the HLP, I had no idea of the significant impact it would have on my growth as a leader. I entered into the program thinking I knew everything there was to know about leadership and that I was already the best leader that I could be, but I was very quickly proven wrong. Through the educational opportunities offered to me in the program, I have come to realize that leadership is fluid and that I am constantly growing and changing as a leader. Looking at who I am now versus who I was when I entered the program, I can see the evidence of how I have grown and changed. In the time that I have been a part of HLP, I have developed a deeper grasp on my personal leadership style and have been provided with opportunities to refine and practice this style, like my internship this past summer.

Throughout the summer, I was responsible for a wide range of projects. As a political intern, I managed simple administrative tasks, including answering phone calls and emails from constituents, creating graphics for our social media, and keeping a record of campaign finances. I was also given the opportunity to author editorials and press releases based on opposition research, analyze voter targeting and political data techniques, and secure donations through dialogue with Tennessee Republican voters. Additionally, I engaged in outside-office projects, including door knocking and phone banking for various campaigns and organizing and volunteering at numerous Tennessee Republican events. I was expected to complete tasks quickly and accurately and was given a great deal of responsibility. Had it not been for the skills I acquired through the Honors Leadership Program, I would not have enjoyed the same level of success in my internship.

I decided to pursue the internship with the Tennessee Republican Party after meeting with my honors advisor and learning of the HLP’s requirement for members to complete an internship. At first, it seemed crazy to me that I would spend the summer after my first year of college interning and living in a different city.  I felt overwhelmed that my life was moving so quickly and I questioned why I rushed into an internship. However, I soon realized that life is often fast-paced and it was better to prepare for my future while in school rather than having to figure it all out after I graduated. Reflecting back on my experience, I’m grateful that this was a requirement I had to fulfill. As a result of my internship, I was exposed to aspects of the political world I was unaware of before. The opportunity to explore an area I was interested in helped me confirm whether politics was a viable career for me. Thanks to my involvement in the HLP and the experiences it offers, I am actively preparing for my future and I am confident that I will serve as a successful and meaningful leader throughout the rest of my life.