Anna SchaefferMercury Staff
POSTEDJanuary 27, 2019
Students face delays in obtaining security clearances, completing orientations
When economics senior Jack Sollows began his semester in Washington, D.C., he did not expect a weeks-long delay in the midst of a national government shutdown. Of the 12 UTD students participating in the D.C.-based Bill Archer Fellowship Program, three — including Sollows — hold internships that have not yet begun because of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Archer fellows spend a semester in the nation’s capital interning and studying political science in a cohort with other UT System students. This semester, five UTD students — two at the Department of Justice and three at the Department of State — were unable to begin their original internship positions until the government shutdown ended and are still facing challenges in obtaining clearance or attending orientation for their internships. As of Jan. 24, two students chose replacement jobs elsewhere, but three students are awaiting further action.
On the 35th day of the government shutdown, congressional leaders and President Donald Trump agreed on a three-week deal to temporarily reopen the government and continue holding discussions on the immigration issues at the crux of the shutdown.
Sollows is interning at the Department of Justice in the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, where his clearance paperwork hasn’t been processed since mid-December. He said on the official internship start date, Jan. 22, all Archers in non-governmental positions began their positions, but some in government-related internships have still been unable to commence work.
“I was lucky enough to get temporary work from my office to bridge the gap, but it would be much nicer if I was able to work fully,” Sollows said before congressional leaders and President Trump came to an agreement. “The main effect is in the uncertainty.”
After the government reopened, Sollows said he was grateful for the backpay included in the temporary resolution for federal workers.
“Having personally seen the effects that it’s caused in some offices, it’s very good that the offer gives support for those people,” Sollows said. “For the support of the Archer fellows, this uncertainty is removed temporarily, but there’s no guarantee that we won’t be in this same situation in three weeks. If we’re here again, it’ll be false hope, but if we’re not, it’ll be progress towards something better.”
Keenan Courtland, a program coordinator at the Archer Center, said the center has dealt with government furloughs before, but this shutdown requires long-term backup plans because of the uncertainty in whether the government will remain open after three weeks.
“The previous longest furlough in our time was 17 days,” Courtland said. “In this case, we’re much more prepared for it to go on much longer. My philosophy, and I think this is shared by the Archer Center, is making sure that students are engaged in what’s happening around them. If your site is impacted, it’s a learning opportunity in its own right. This is not just a wall in front of them, but something they can better understand bureaucracy or the city through.”
Biology senior Matthew Gehrlein’s security clearance had already been processed before the shutdown, but his internship at the State Department’s Office of International Narcotics Law Enforcement could not start because there was no staff available to conduct his orientation. He said State Department employees returned to work January 22, but because of a month-long absence caused by the shutdown, intern orientation was pushed back by two weeks.
“I didn’t realize how much the government shutdown would affect me until I got the email,” Gehrlein said. “It was hard to empathize with the government workers until it affected me personally. But I am not counting on this (job) to survive. It helps me understand more of what they’re experiencing.”
Sollows said for him and a few other Archer fellows, the situation is complicated because the federal workers who process clearance for interns were furloughed, so now those employees have to return to work, finish processing clearances and finally induct the interns.
“Now it’s a race against the clock as to whether they can onboard me and the other Archer fellows in these next three weeks,” Sollows said. “Three weeks goes by fast here, considering it’s only 15 business days.”
Both Sollows and Gehrlein said the Archer Center has provided extensive help for fellows affected by the shutdown.
“I’m grateful to be here, and (the Archer Center) is reaching out to other offices to see if I can find some temporary work,” Gehrlein said. “It’s been neat to experience it at the heart of where the political crisis is happening.”
Courtland said students affected by the shutdown have taken the opportunity to learn more about the nation’s capital, and the Archer Center will continue to encourage fellows in their ideas and aspirations.
“These challenges are difficult but also create an amazing opportunity for resilience,” Courtland said. “If there is an intention to work within certain agencies, we’ll work through a student’s ideas. It’s an opportunity for students to stay within the track they wanted to do and find opportunities that still allow them to grow for their future goals, both productive and impactful for their careers.”