Weather Forecast


Internship put HHS grad on Capitol Hill

Jolena Zabel, a 2012 graduate of Hastings High School, got an early look at what it’s like to do humanitarian work in a political setting over the summer.

Growing up in Hastings, Zabel developed a curiosity about what’s happening in the world, she said, and felt morally obligated to learn about humanitarian issues.

She’s most interested in issues that women and girls face. Ultimately, Zabel wants to work with girls in terms of their economic environment, education and health both in the U.S. and around the world, she said.

Zabel spent three months from June to August as an intern with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Washington, D.C. The experience started as a means of filling one of her college requirements. She needed an internship or some other sort of practical experience in the field in order to complete her political science major, she explained.

Zabel, a sophomore at Macalester College, said she wanted to try something new and get out of state. Since she has family in the D.C. area, she figured that would be a good place to start looking for internship opportunities.

She worked with the college’s human development center to find programs related to her main interests, international politics and human rights, and got in touch with a Macalester alumnus who was also chief of the UNFPA Washington, D.C., liaison office to secure the internship.

The UNFPA works with governments, agencies and civil society to create “a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person’s potential is fulfilled,” according to its mission statement. Some of its goals are achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health, promoting reproductive rights, reducing maternal mortality and promoting the understanding of population dynamics. More about the organization can be found at

The work

Zabel was one of two interns in the UNFPA office, and she really got to dig into the work.

“(My boss) took my experience as an intern very serious,” Zabel said.

One opportunity gave her a part in organizing an exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda that addressed international efforts to end child marriage.

She was assigned a variety of tasks, like drafting letters, researching issues and writing reports on briefings she attended at the Capitol.

“It was in-depth but extremely rewarding,” she said.

Going into the internship, one of the things Zabel was worried about was that humanitarian work wouldn’t be as good a fit for her as she thought it would be. But she learned that there are certain jobs that she is good at, such as writing and doing policy work. She got to see how hard people work at the policy and program design level to make sure humanitarian efforts are put into effect, and it helped her affirm her desire to make that sort of work her career.

“I learned that political science and human rights is what I want to do with my life,” she said.

The experience

Being in Washington, D.C., was also an opportunity for Zabel to expand her personal horizons. While she had been in the city as a child with her family, this was her first time living on her own.

D.C. has a notably different atmosphere than Hastings, she said, and it took some getting used to.

“D.C. is a very intense place where everybody seems to know everybody,” she said.

She found herself in close quarters with people who drive the nation’s political climate – she met Howard Dean at a frozen yogurt shop, was just a few feet away from Anderson Cooper at the Supreme Court, and was handed a Dr. Pepper by a U.S. senator at a fundraising event.

“It was very intimidating to begin with,” she said.

But she adjusted, and learned that she can be happy in that sort of environment, she said.

Zabel encouraged others to get involved in things that might seem daunting at first. For her, the payoff was well worth it.“It was the most formative experience, I think, of my entire life.”