Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 1

by Katherine Kipp

Katherine posing with a very photogenic camel in India, 2011. After her NEH internship ends, Katherine will head back to India for a six-week trip.

Katherine posing with a very photogenic camel in India, 2011. After her NEH internship ends, Katherine will head back to India for a six-week trip.

As I approach the end of my internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities, it occurs to me that the internship’s end coincides with my fourth year in graduate school, equaling the amount of time I spent as an undergrad. By the time I graduate with my Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing next May, I will have spent more time in graduate school than as an undergraduate.

It also occurs to me that my time at NEH, while my third time working as an intern, comes after a five-year gap from my last internship. Coincidentally, my last internship was also in D.C., when I was studying at the Washington Journalism Center for a semester.

I entered the NEH internship with really no idea of what to expect. Would I be stapling papers? Making coffee? Hailing taxis? My last two internships had been at newspapers, and I had spent most of my time interviewing, transcribing interviews, and turning interviews into stories.

Plus, up until the point I received an email from the Academic Coordinator in my Master’s program, advertising the internship, I had never heard of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I wasn’t even completely sure what the humanities were, and I’m an English major three times over! All I knew for sure was that my internship would be in the Office of White House and Congressional Affairs, the three women I would be working with all had names that start with a “C,” and the offices are located in the Old Post Office Pavilion, floors above where hordes of middle schoolers gather to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and cookies during their school trips to Washington, D.C.

I learned quickly that I, and my fellow interns, would all be assigned specific tasks to work on. Each task made use of a particular skillset of ours that we were already bringing to the table, and pushed us to expand that skillset and apply it to our day-to-day work at the NEH. I was charged to develop and write material for the new Congressional Affairs blog. I’ve been writing in some form or fashion since 2nd grade. This interest of mine has taken me from writing for my college’s newspaper, to writing short stories for local competitions, to freelancing for small-town newspapers, and, most recently, to obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing.

Even though writing the blog would allow me to use part of a skillset I’m comfortable with, I was tasked with developing material for blog posts in a field I was mostly unfamiliar with just a few months ago. Luckily, I work with some amazing people (not just in my office, but the whole of NEH) who were happy to share ideas for potential blog posts. Through this, I was able to learn about the Division of Education Programs’ Summer Institutes, the many documentaries and radio shows Public Programs has funded, and the ways people and institutions are combining humanities and technology to provide updated and innovative ideas. So, while I was writing blog posts informing congressional staff members and constituents about the amazing contributions NEH has made and continues to make to the humanities world, I was also able to truly understand the great impact NEH has had on society—and it was right underneath my nose the whole time. I even went so far as to research NEH-funded programs and events in my hometown: there have been 36, dating back all the way to the early 1980s!

In addition to detailing the good work NEH does on our blog, I was able to do so in person as well through visits with the staff of freshmen members of Congress. Of all the experiences I have had since beginning my time at the NEH, those meetings were the most unexpected for me. I had not been seeking out a Congressional affairs position, so meeting with Congressional staff on a regular basis was a pleasant surprise. I’m glad to be able to communicate the good work NEH does to congressional staff members, knowing they’ll pass the message along to fellow employees and constituents in their districts.

And then there was the fun stuff! I became friends with my two fellow interns, people I probably would never have met otherwise, and with them (and a little help from our advisors as well) covered our Director’s office in googly eyes for April Fool’s Day. I attended the 42nd Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities, featuring Martin Scorsese, and an event centered on the NEH-funded documentary No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII, featuring Soledad O’Brien. I trekked to the Executive Office Building for a meeting and came within inches of meeting Joe Biden. (Kidding—I just like to imagine that he was there.) From days with special events like the White House briefing to trekking through mazes of 8th graders on my way to grab Indian food, working at the NEH was always an adventure.

But the biggest skill I gained was a newfound respect for the humanities, an educated understanding of what NEH does, and admiration for the people who work every day to make the NEH great. I will miss this place once I’m gone!

Katherine Kipp is working toward her Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing at the University of Maryland. She has a MA in English from Southeast Missouri State University (Cape Girardeau, MO), a BA in English and Journalism from Union University (Jackson, Tenn.), and worked for several years as a freelance journalist. A Tennessean at heart, even though she lost the accent (or never had it to begin with), she loves drinking coffee, smelling old books, running, and, obviously, writing. She plans on graduating in the spring of 2014 and pursuing a career in education.

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