Panetta Institute Internship Introduces Business Major Nicole Leonard to U.S. Political System

As something she and her mom used to do for fun, Nicole Leonard would often spend weekends spontaneously dropping in on real estate open houses in and near Torrance, where she was born and still calls home.

CSUDH senior with U.S. Representative Ken Calvert (D-42).

CSUDH senior with U.S. Representative Ken Calvert (D-42).

Leonard developed such an interest in residential real estate that it became her career aspiration to become a licensed real estate broker. As a means to that end, she enrolled at Marymount College (now Marymount California University) in Rancho Palos Verdes and in spring 2012 earned an associate’s degree in business with a concentration in accounting.

By the time she transferred to California State University, Dominguez Hills in fall 2012, something had caught the senior business accounting major by surprise.

“I just loved college and my attitude completely changed around,” she said. “I love school and… now I plan on pursuing a Ph.D.”

With a new goal to become a university professor, Leonard, a legacy student—she will be the fourth in her family, following her grandmother, mother, and father, to earn a degree from CSU Dominguez Hills—is mapping out her plans to achieve her dream and taking every opportunity that comes her way to ensure her success.

A 2013 CSU Dominguez Hills Presidential Scholar, secretary of the university’s American Marketing Association chapter, and past recipient of the College of Business and Public Policy’s Beach Cities Institute of Internal Auditors Scholarship, Leonard can now add the prestigious Panetta Congressional Internship to her list of titles and accomplishments while at CSU Dominguez Hills.

The internship is sponsored by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a program designed to encourage and develop future leaders in United States government. The institute was established by Leon Panetta, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and his wife Sylvia Panetta, who is the director of the institute and has ties to the CSU system having attended Sonoma State University in the mid-1970s and serving as an advisor to the CSU Chancellor since 1997.

“It’s such an honor that the Panetta Institute for Public Policy invests in students in hopes that one day they will be able to give back to their community, just as the Panetta’s have done in their careers. They really want to inspire young people to get out and fully participate, and be very active in the political system and anything that gives back to the community,” Leonard said.

Toro Nicole Leonard (fourth from left, middle row) takes class with other 2013 interns at the Panetta Institute.

Toro Nicole Leonard (fourth from left, middle row) takes class with her fellow 2013 interns at the Panetta Institute.

After an intensive two weeks of preparation at the Panetta Institute, a nonpartisan study center located on the CSU Monterey Bay campus, Leonard and 25 other interns selected from 22 campuses from the CSU system—as well as the University of Santa Clara, Leon Panetta’s alma mater, and Dominican University, where Sylvia Panetta began her college education—set out for Washington, D.C. to work full-time for 11 weeks in the congressional offices of the California delegation.

“I thought I was going to have a disadvantage, automatically, because political science was not my main focus, but when I was there, I realized just how intertwined business and politics are,” Leonard said of being selected for the fall internship.

Assigned to the office of Congressman Ken Calvert (D-42), Leonard fielded calls and emails from constituents, carried out administrative tasks, led tours of the Capitol building, and attended briefings and hearings on behalf of Calvert, one being focused on wind energy.

“That was so insightful, how the tax code really influences whether the businesses will or will not invest in wind energy in the United States,” Leonard remarked.

During the 15th annual internship, which ran from Aug. 11 to Nov. 9, 2013, Leonard also experienced an occurrence that not many interns typically do; she had a ringside seat to the 16-day government shutdown that began on Oct. 1 as a result of the failure of Congress to pass spending bills that fund the government.

“When the government was shut down, I was basically on the phones with constituents, which is a really good experience because you get to hear directly from [people] in [California] and how they are feeling,” Leonard said.

Leonard experienced another historic event while she was interning in House of Representatives.

“Before the government even shut down there was this huge deal in Syria, that everyone was so afraid we were going to war. We got so many calls about that,” Leonard recalled.

As part of the requirements for the internship, garnering 20 units toward her undergraduate degree, Leonard completed a journal of her experiences as well as a research paper on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, exploring, “How we got to that point, the things that led up to that, how we were able to reopen the government, and how things are looking for the future.”

Through the internship, Leonard said she was able to make the transition from being in the classroom to gaining real-world experiences, such as meeting representatives of Congress as well as visiting the West Wing, the deputy secretary of defense at the Pentagon, and the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We got to speak with the parliamentarian. He is basically the referee for both sides who are stating their case. He was so insightful. He gave [each intern] a large book of all the rules that he’s supposed to follow, ‘Jefferson’s Manual and U.S. House Rules,’  and [a copy of] the constitution. Getting to be there on the House floor where people are voting and people are making speeches that are life changing, we got to sit in the chairs where the congress representatives usually sit in, and we got to see the voting machine, where they would punch in their electronic vote. It was phenomenal,” Leonard commented. “I learned so much about the Capitol that you can’t just learn in a 30-minute walk-through.”

Leonard, who pursued the internship opportunity to expand beyond her “comfort zone” and to acquire a better understanding of how the U.S. government works, has achieved much more. The time as a Panetta Congressional intern helped solidify her plans after graduation. Currently on target to graduate from the university in fall 2014, Leonard intends to get a post-graduate internship where she can acquire real-world experience and learn about business management, with an eye toward applying to graduate programs that are focused on strategic management and public policy.

“My main goals when I was there [in Washington, D.C.] was to grow as a person, grow my education, and to have an idea of what I want to do in the future. I think I accomplished all three of those goals, so I was very happy with the experience and how everything turned out,” Leonard said.

For an information packet and application materials for the Fall 2014 Panetta Congressional Internship, visit the Career Center in Welch Hall, room D-360. Application deadline is Feb. 13. The packet is also available on the Career Center web site, Click on the ToroJobs icon, log in, and under Job Search click ToroJobs to search for Job ID #6464 “Congressional Internship Program.”

For more information on the Panetta Congressional Internship, visit

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