Women leaders inspire undergrad during UCDC internship in Nancy Pelosi's office

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"I wanted to work with one of the most powerful women ever to work in Congress," Courtney Zuniga said of her decision to intern in Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office. A tattoo on her forearm reminds Zuniga of her strength. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)
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"Going to Washington and seeing so many women in powerful positions... it was very uplifting," said Zuniga, pictured here with Nancy Pelosi. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Zuniga)

For Courtney Zuniga, the sight of powerful women like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi made a lasting impression during her Fall Quarter UCDC internship in Washington, D.C.

Zuniga spent last fall as an intern for Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and former Speaker of the House.

"Going to Washington and seeing so many women in powerful positions—so many women commanding respect, saying 'I am here because of who I am, and you'll give me respect'—it was very uplifting," said Zuniga, whose long-term career goal is to be an advocate for women and children.

About 25 undergraduates from each campus enroll in the systemwide UCDC program each quarter, studying and working in the capital. Zuniga chose Capitol Hill, but other students land internships in government agencies, cultural institutions, nonprofits, and media outlets.

Zuniga applied for internships with Pelosi, California senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

"Ninety percent of UCDC students apply to work with Kamala Harris—she gets 3,000 applications nationwide and only takes about eight students! The Leader gets about 300 and takes six," said Zuniga, who refers to Pelosi by her title as Democratic Leader of the House. Zuniga received offers from both California senators and said choosing was "the hardest decision."

"The House sees a lot more action than the Senate side, and I wanted to work with one of the most powerful women ever to work in Congress," she said.

More than answering phones

As an intern, Zuniga often attended briefings on behalf of staff, writing detailed memos on tight deadlines for legislative directors who couldn't attend in person. She attended briefings on a diverse range of topics, including Tibet, human organ harvesting in China, and human sex trafficking in the United States. "I thought I'd be answering phones and greeting visitors, but they have staff for that," she said. Zuniga, who loves to write, also took a UCDC research seminar taught by John Lawrence, who was Pelosi's chief of staff when she was Speaker of the House.

The workload was heavy but not unusual for Zuniga, who takes four classes a quarter, works 20 hours a week in the Express Store at Quarry Plaza, interns off campus, and juggles extracurricular activities like Student Union Assembly. She will graduate this spring with a double major in legal studies and sociology after only three years on campus.

Zuniga will be a second-generation college graduate; raised by her mother, Zuniga was a child when her mother enrolled at UC Riverside, then went on to earn a master's and Ph.D. in psychology. Watching her mother struggle financially and seeing her mistreated because she was a woman had a lasting impact on Zuniga. "When I was little, my mom was a bill collector for a trailer park, and today she's a psychologist," said Zuniga. "My mom's my idol."

Back on campus

Back on campus this winter, Zuniga is writing her senior thesis about the second amendment and gun control. She was in Washington when 58 people were killed and 851 injured in the Las Vegas shooting. "That was the biggest mass shooting in history. We've become used to it," she said, lamenting the fact that no gun-control legislation has been approved since 2000.

She is also doing a Legal Studies internship with Santa Cruz Public Defenders, where she assists investigators by interviewing witnesses in a range of cases, including domestic violence and sexual violence. Complainants are sometimes reluctant to cooperate, which has required Zuniga to hone her powers of persuasion when reaching out.

"Our job is to see what happened, good or bad," she said. "I love people. I love listening to people's stories and connecting with people. It's very interesting to see this side of law and politics."

Graduating in three years

When Zuniga thinks about her three years at UC Santa Cruz, she would be the first to say it hasn't always been easy.

"Freshman year was hard—it's the hardest," she said, recalling the trepidation she felt about being labeled "the weird girl with the dog," because she brought an emotional support animal—Cupcake, a teacup poodle—to campus. She credits a women's group facilitated by Blair Davis in Counseling and Psychological Services with helping her meet new friends and find her footing.

Zuniga is also a big proponent of keeping busy. During her sophomore year, she was the outreach and engagement coordinator for the Student Union Assembly (SUA), where she focused on public awareness campaigns around student mental health and sexual assault on college campuses. SUA is where Zuniga met Kylie Carpenter (College Ten '17, history; legal studies minor). "She did UCDC and interned with Congresswoman Barbara Lee," said Zuniga. "She worked on Capitol Hill, and she spurred that in me."

Applying to UCDC is "really intense, it's a huge application," and Zuniga didn't make the initial cut. "I was waitlisted," she said. "That stung."

But that wasn't the end of the story. Today, Zuniga finds inspiration on her forearm, where the word "strong" is tattooed in delicate cursive. "I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," she said. "Things always work out."