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A Day in the Life: Mary Ciera Wilson ’17 Day in the Life, Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner, Intern in Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's Office

“I wanted the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the political field — experience that will one day hopefully lead me into my own political career.”

On June 26, 2015, I scurried up the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol and into the Constituent Services offices knowing that this day was going to be long, hectic and exhausting. Today history would be in made in the form of the United States Supreme Court decision in the case Obergefell v. Hodges — a decision that could possibly allow same-sex marriages throughout the country. History would be made while I was an employee of a state with same-sex marriage already banned in its constitution. Interestingly enough, when I first started this internship I guessed that it would be slow with Tennessee Legislation out of session in the summer.

For the first couple of days of the internship, it was indeed rather sluggish. On a typical day, I would pull up to the State Capitol and find on my desk two stacks of mail: one that contained mail that needed to be sent to different internal offices and the other to be scanned and electronically filed or transferred to the appropriate state departments. After sifting through mail addressed to Governor Haslam, I would acquire and complete certificate and flag requests that had been submitted by constituents or Tennessee legislatures. Some of my other tasks included proofreading legal documents and proclamations, mailing out pictures that the Governor had taken with different individuals at a variety of events, returning calls to constituents that had left voicemails the day before, and most importantly, keeping up with local, state and federal news that involved Governor Haslam. The rest of the day was taken up with phone calls from all over the state of Tennessee: phone calls about unemployment, TennCare, the Tennessee Promise, scheduling requests … the list goes on.

However, that Friday was different. I went through the same routine for the first hour or so with my eyes permanently glued to the small Toshiba TV screen sitting on top of the filing cabinet. Then the decision was announced: same-sex marriage had been ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Our office shot into action, preparing for the wave of calls and emails that we knew would be soon pouring in due to this long-debated, controversial topic (especially in our State). Within an hour, all of the lines were ringing non-stop. I spent that day repeating Governor Haslam’s official statement over and over again: “The people of Tennessee have recently voted clearly on this issue. The Supreme Court has overturned that vote. We will comply with the decision and will ensure that our departments are able to do so as quickly as possible.”

What my experience on this day in particular taught me is that, yes, sometimes getting calls from people that simply want to complain and yell at someone can be frustrating. However, these people cared enough about what they saw going on in the world to call and make their opinions known to their state government. My job was to take their concerns to the Governor and our offices, to assure them that we would help to the best of our ability in their individual situation, and if we couldn’t help, that we would at least listen with compassion and assist them in finding someone that could give them the aid they needed. Even though people called infuriated that Governor Haslam was allowing this to happen (despite the fact that he had no power or jurisdiction to act against it, even if he wanted to), I was grateful to be part of a state full of citizens who actively cared.

I accepted the summer internship with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam because taking courses towards my politics major was not enough for me; I wanted the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the political field — experience that will one day hopefully lead me into my own political career. That is exactly what I found this summer at the Tennessee State Capitol. I can now say that I was working for my state government during the Charleston shooting, which resulted in a controversy over the Confederate flag and the removal of monuments commemorating General Nathan Bedford Forrest. I was there during President Obama’s visit to Nashville to discuss the Affordable Care Act. I was there during the Chattanooga shooting that resulted in Tennessee Army & Air National Guard members with valid Tennessee State Handgun Carry Permits being allowed to carry handguns at state armories and facilities. And I was there the day the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage.

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Class Year: 2017

Hometown: Johnson City, Tennessee

Majors: Politics and English

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Student Recruitment Committee Vice President
  • Generals Christian Fellowship
  • Shakespeare Society

Off-Campus Experiences: I studied abroad in Bath, England with the Advanced Studies in England program the fall of my sophomore year.

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant? I applied to this grant so that I could explore an internship away from my very small town. I knew that to get an internship that would let me explore the inner workings of politics I was going to have to spend a summer in Washington D.C. or Nashville, Tennessee — both an incredibly long commute from my house. I was thrilled to find a grant that would provide funds to find a place to live for the summer.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L? Since I am a politics major, I thought an internship with the top political figure in my state would not only give me the experience I was looking for, but I would also learn more about state policies that affect me and my family.

What has been the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience so far? The most unexpected aspect would probably be how much people care about the little things. The fact that I received dozens of calls each day is proof that people still believe in what the American government is supposed to look like and that they want to be involved in politics.

Post-Graduation Plans: I am preparing to go straight to law school after graduation.

Favorite W&L Memory: Spring-term of my sophomore year I took Professor Holly Pickett’s English class on Hamlet. For the class, we drove to Staunton to see the Blackfrair’s performance of Dr. Faustus, which is one of the sources that Shakespeare used to write Hamlet. I had a great time seeing the performance and then discussing it over ice cream afterwards with my class.