From Classroom to Capital

Jan 292007
Authors: James Holt

Luke Ragland took the seat saved for him by a classmate. It was shoulder-to-shoulder suits in the packed room as he sat down. Appearing before the crowd, 20 legislators took their seats in the crowded committee hearing room.

The Colorado Commission for Higher Education was presenting to the Joint Education Committee. Ragland took out his pen and notebook and prepared to jot notes for Sen. Steven Johnson.

“I feel lucky to be with Johnson,” Ragland said. “He’s hilarious.”

John Straayer has been taking a CSU student intern to the state capital for nearly 30 years as part of his legislative internship program.

The well-connected professor for the political science department wants his students to see what they’re learning in the classroom put into practice.

“This is the future government of America,” Straayer said. “I’m told over and over again this will be and has been the best internship program in the state.”

Each semester, Straayer accepts about two-dozen juniors and seniors into the 6-credit program.

“I know the students, many of them personally,” Straayer said.

Students have to take the legislative politics course either previously or concurrently. They keep a journal while in the program and write a term paper at the end.

“You can see a legislator in action and not get as much as if you studied it, and you can study it and not get as much as being there,” Straayer said. “It takes on a new dimension when the students are down there.”

His students have only praise for the program.

“It has been a fun time, so far,” Ragland said, a junior political science major. “It’s fun being at the capitol and seeing how things work.”

Ragland spends most of his time at the capitol in committees, interning for Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, but said each student’s experience varies depending on who they are paired with.

“Things work differently here,” said senior Stephen Fagan, a political science major who interns for Representative Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. “I’ve gotten a much better perspective.”

Based on preferences, party affiliation and interests, Straayer pairs each student with a legislator.

“It generally works well,” Straayer said. “The group this year has settled in very nicely.”

Unlike the U.S. Congress, Colorado legislators do not have individual staff.

“We give them bright young college students that can help them out with a lot of things, so legislators like them,” he said.

The legislative intern program was only a few years old when Straayer took it over almost 30 years ago. The course had its hiccups in the beginning, but Straayer saved it from its ultimate demise.

“Straayer is the best professor I’ve had,” Ragland said. “He’s passionate about politics and students, and cares about our experience at the internship. I can’t give enough praise to Straayer.”

At first, Straayer tried to manage the program while concurrently acting as the political science department chairman, but the responsibility proved to be too much.

So he quit the chairmanship and for 20 years has been going to the capitol with the students. Straayer says he can now do better matching them up with legislators.

“He’s like a rock star,” Ragland said. “Everyone knows him.”

Senior Lindsay Byers, a speech communication major, was an intern in the program last year and said that while the internship was a positive experience, it helped her decide against a political science minor.

“It was a great learning experience,” Byers said. “I’m more familiar with the lobbying aspect and that will help me with communications.”

Every student takes something different from the experience.

“A handful of them end up in elected office,” Straayer said. “A number of others end up in some kind of staffing unit. A number of them are in Washington.”

Staff writer James Holt can be reached at

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