As soon as the 80th Nevada Legislature convened on Feb. 4, Akaisha Cook jumped into action, scheduling every member of the Legislature to meet with Gov. Steve Sisolak.
Scheduling is just one of her many duties as a legislative intern in the governor’s office. She also creates bill memos, attends committee hearings, tracks press clips, and writes proclamations.
The senior political science major and Honors College student is one of nine legislative interns dispatched to the state capital this year as part of UNLV’s Carson City legislative internship program. And it happens that her stint in Carson City is occurring at a time when Nevada is marking an historic achievement — the first female-majority Legislature in the history of the nation.
Cook credits the program with exposing her to lawmaking at this singular time in Nevada history and helping her decide if law school is her next step after graduation. “I knew it would be an historic legislature. I like the idea of being part of major change and helping as many people as possible, especially people who are low socio-economic status and people of color,” she said.
Each biennium, the UNLV program places legislative interns in Carson City to assist lawmakers with various duties such as tracking bills, conducting research, and meeting with constituents. The program is coordinated by the College of Liberal Arts and open to all UNLV majors, though most participants are political science majors.
Prior experience isn’t required, but Cook already had cut her teeth in several government-related positions. She previously served as director of legislative affairs for UNLV’s undergraduate student government — the Consolidated Students of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (CSUN); president of the UNLV chapter of the NAACP; and a finance intern for the 2016 campaign of U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, a retired UNLV political science professor, spearheaded the legislative internship program in 1997 when she was a state senator. Since then about 30 students have learned about the legislative process from the inside out, working in Carson City during the session or local field offices of Nevada's congressional delegation. Many have gone on to careers as attorneys, lobbyists, and even elected officials. Former Assemblyman Elliot T. Anderson was an intern, graduated from the William S. Boyd School of Law, and represented District 15 in the Nevada Assembly from 2010 to 2018.
“She (Titus) thought it would be a nice opportunity for our students to intern. She laid the foundation for the program. It really tends to be a stepping stone in people’s pathway to advancement,” said John Tuman, interim associate dean for faculty in the College of Liberal Arts, who has coordinated the program since 2016.
Students earn six credits in the Legislative Internship class and must take a total of 12 credits during their internship. They complete a self-assessment, write a research report, and take a full load of coursework — through independent studies or online classes — all while managing their duties in Carson City.
The internships are funded by a combination of campus and private sources, and include a $7,500 stipend to cover students’ travel and living expenses. This year, law firm Fennemore Craig funded two interns.
Tuman supervises the academic component of the program, manages placements, and assesses students’ learning experiences. The data gathered aids in the university’s accreditation process, said the former longtime chair of the department of political science.
“We assess critical reasoning and writing skills as part of how we review our undergraduate curriculum. Students often score very highly on the ratings scale for those skills. It’s nice that they’ve built up the sort of skills that are expected of them as they transition into the workplace after graduation,” he said.
The legislative internship program is among five such programs run year-round by the political science department. Through its internship classes, the department places about 45 students each year in an array of positions with law firms, local offices of government agencies, broadcast news outlets, and, during election season, national and state campaigns.
Though all are challenging, the legislative internship program sets the most stringent standards for selection, Tuman said. Interns must have completed 60 credits toward their majors and have at least a 3.5 GPA.
“That’s generally why we place upper-division students. We emphasize that they are ambassadors of the university. We expect them to dress professionally and comport themselves as such,” he said.
Professionalism is a must, but a particular party affiliation is not. “We try hard to be nonpartisan and work with parties and candidates across the spectrum. We try to make sure we have people from different parties applying,” Tuman said.
First-generation college student Jorge Padilla, also a senior political science major, thought he was a longshot for the internship because of his limited experience with student or real-world government, he said.
Now he’s taking full advantage of the behind-the-scenes learning opportunities working with Assemblyman Steve Yeager, chair of the Judicial Committee and speaker pro tempore.
“It’s an honor to represent UNLV. There were only a few positions, so the internship is a huge deal to me,” Padilla said.