Political science graduate student Crystal Jewett, 25, interned as an advocate for Taiwan United States relations to get a crash course in politics. She expected to learn about international relations, Washington DC, and Taiwan but learned far more about herself and the importance of participation in the democratic process.
Jewett, who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno, gained an interest in Taiwan politics after a 10-day vacation in November 2008. Shortly after arriving back in Reno, she spotted a listing on the University Career Navigation job board for an internship in Washington DC with the Formosa Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, Calif. The foundation seeks to improve Taiwan’s democracy and international recognition as a sovereign state separate from China.
“I really learned firsthand about Taiwanese people and their generosity,” Jewett said. “They had certainly done a lot of me while I was there and I felt compelled to lend my efforts to the cause. Plus who doesn’t like freedom and democracy?”
When the Chinese Communist Party took power of mainland China in 1949, the previous ruling party called the Chinese Nationalist Party was forced to flee to what is now known as Taiwan and established the Republic of China. According to Jewett, in previous years the United States recognized the party in Taiwan as the ruling party of all China. But in 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act was passed by Congress as a reaction to the shift to officially recognize the People’s Republic of China as the ruling party of all China. It stated that the United States’ official policy on Taiwan was that it recognized People’s Republic of China’s assertion that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it, Jewett said. Taiwan lost a seat in the United Nations and lost international recognition as a separate state from China, though they remain one of America’s most important trading partners.
“If you ask a Taiwanese person, they’re going to say absolutely not,” Jewett said when asked if Taiwan was Chinese territory. “My personal opinion is that they’re culturally, linguistically completely distinct from mainland China.”
When Jewett applied for the position, she was transitioning from a background in anthropology to political science. She had no prior training in political science and had never having been to Washington DC. On June 15, she left for the capital for a two-week long internship that would have her meet many of Nevada’s representatives, congress’ and other organizations most influential members and representatives of Taiwan.
As one intern among 29 others, Jewett spent the first week attending seminars and speeches in preparation for the second week of meeting and lobbying congress members. Alongside three others in her group, she researched the voting records of different members of congress, information on human rights and democracy in Taiwan, as well as conducted presentations for the other interns and members of congress.
“We had to do a lot of prep work for the meetings,” Jewett said. “You had to know what committees the congress people sat on, if they made any statements about Taiwan, if they were on the Taiwan caucus, what bills they have voted on concerning Taiwan…so we could tailor each presentation that we could give to each person.”
By the end of the two weeks, Jewett and her group had met with 25 congress people and their staff in a matter of about four days. As a constituent of Nevada, she met with Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid, Representative Dean Heller, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, Senator Ensign’s staff and Representative Dina Titus’ staff.
“Sometimes you only get 10 or five minutes of their time in the hallway,” Jewett said. “And you get to say a couple of things and then you have to take a picture with them and that’s about it.”
Though a relative newcomer to the world of politics, Jewett has been interested in politics from a young age, while remaining an active participant in debate and the democratic process. A class on contemporary American history in the last semester of her undergraduate education pushed her to apply for graduate school in political science.
“I’ve been political since I was eight years old,” Jewett said. “I remember watching, staying up all night and watching the Clinton and Bush election and sort of being hooked from that point forward. But the switch from anthropology to political science, that class was the catalyst. ”
Jewett had many expectations of what the internship and the experience of being in the nation’s capital would be like, but inevitably some of them were refuted. Though she said she began to “slowly hate the weather more and more,” she found herself quickly adjusting to the fast-paced lifestyle, and even beginning to love it.
“I sort of expected that I would hate the running around,” she said. “But I kind of fell in love with it. I liked running around. I liked having eight different meetings a day. Having to grab lunch in the congressional cafeteria really quick while briefing for the next meeting.”
While Jewett also said she learned quite a bit about politics in Washington, she also began to learn more about herself. In a meeting with an argumentative senator staff member, Jewett found herself replying effectively and passionately, something she said she would normally not have done.
“I’m not a confrontational person but I learned I can stand up for myself and stand up for what I believe in especially if I’m put in a corner,” Jewett said. “I can do it in an effective way without getting flustered and frustrated. I can keep cool under pressure.”
While the experience has affected Jewett both negatively and positively, her faith in the democratic process has improved. She stresses how important it is for citizens to remain active in affecting change in their governments, here, in Taiwan, or anywhere.
“I just can’t really emphasize enough how lucky we are to have the process that we have here that our officials are so accessible,” she said. “There was this malaise about the democratic process in the United States with young people….but democracy is a process. It doesn’t continue on by itself. If you care about something, you have to guard it pretty closely.”
With a new semester ahead, Jewett said she is unsure of what the future holds, though she hopes to eventually hold a job in politics as an analyst or staff member in the United States Department of State. What is for sure is that after a short, busy two weeks as an advocate in Washington DC, she has returned to Reno changed.
“My main focus was just really capitol hill politics,” Jewett said. “It definitely changed me and how I think about things. It made me a little more cynical in some aspects but it also made me very hopeful in others. It was intense, it was emotional and it was very trying at times. But it was also very rewarding.”