When University of Florida graduate student Christopher Porter wakes up in the morning, he never knows what kind of excitement the day will bring or who he’ll meet. Porter isn’t backpacking through Europe or visiting with islanders in the Bahamas—he gets his thrills just by going to work every day.
“There are no typical days,” Porter says. “One day I might meet with the governor, the next I’ll be in my office at work on analysis, and the next day I could be meeting with a state representative or a March of Dimes activist.”
As one of 12 college students chosen for the first class of the Gubernatorial Fellowship Program, Porter is combining politics with leadership to make a difference in Tallahassee and around the state.
“This is a wonderful, life-enriching opportunity for young people to develop leadership skills and real-life job experience while also serving the residents of our state,” Gov. Bush wrote in a press release.
Students are assigned to work for one year in the Executive Office of the Governor or one of the governor’s agencies that relates to their major. They’re paid for working 20 hours per week and meet with other fellows each week for lectures, press conferences, and briefings.
“Having such a plethora of ever-evolving responsibilities keeps me on my toes and raises not only the quality of the fellowship experience but the quality of my work as well,” Porter says.
Fellowship member Jennifer Hrdlicka, a Florida State University law student, works at the State Board of Administration in the Alternative Investments Department. “This was a good spot for me, and I was a good candidate for them because I’m a law student and they could exploit my legal knowledge,” Hrdlicka says.
Samantha Hunter, a UF graduate student studying law and counseling, works with the SBA as part of the Florida Retirement System. “My experience with the fellowship program has been amazing,” she says. “The governor has taken a personal interest in our development, meeting with the fellows periodically to review our progress on our individual projects.”
It was during one of those meetings with Gov. Bush that Hrdlicka realized just how closely she was working with the government.
“We were talking with him about what we were all doing in each of our projects, when we were interrupted by someone who wanted to know if the governor wanted to issue a statement in regards to a statement the president had issued,” Hrdlicka says. “It was then that I fully realized where I was in the larger scheme of government. I was in a room where the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game’ had been reduced to three—between the President of the United States and me.”
Porter too was in awe of his experiences at the governor’s mansion. “It’s an incredible chance to speak with all the brightest minds of the state and just soak in the stateliness of the events,” he says. However, his most-life changing experience in the program came through his collaboration with Secretary Agwunobi at the Department of Health. “Through months of working with him, I’ve come to realize how much true leadership isn’t dictating and wielding power but instead selling a vision of the way things could be,” Porter says.
Many of the fellows say they were happy with the projects they worked on through the fellowship. Michelle Sumner, a graduate student at FSU, says she was thrilled with her assignment, which dealt with the assessment and management of real estate holdings throughout Florida. “Few master’s degree students at the age of 21 have the opportunity or the responsibility of so monumental a task,” she says.
Iyabo Morrison, an FSU doctoral candidate in rehabilitation counseling says she applied to the fellowship to gain a better understanding of policy development. Through her work in the Department of Juvenile Justice, Morrison traveled across Florida to meet with juvenile-justice stakeholders, service providers, and colleagues from other universities. “I’ve spent a great time in trainings that have provided me with a multitude of new knowledge,” she says.
The application process for the fellowship is competitive, based on leadership skills, written and oral communication skills, community activism, and a desire to serve residents of the state. Hrdlicka and Porter both say they were honored just to be chosen for interviews.
“Each interview made me realize how prestigious this fellowship was going to be,” Hrdlicka says. “Just meeting the people who were interviewing was as exciting as getting that interview itself.”
Porter found out about the fellowship from UF’s honors mailing list just days before the application deadline. “I almost didn’t apply, but the opportunity seemed too wonderful to pass up, so I wrote my essay and asked several professors for references,” he says. “I kept going about my business as usual, never expecting to be contacted. Truth be told, I was excited just to be interviewed by the lieutenant governor and her staff!”
In only its first year, the fellowship received a large number of applications from students all over the state who were eager to participate in the program, says Sara Struhs, director of professional development at the Executive Office of the Governor. “We’re very proud, not only of our first class of fellows, but also of the opportunity to expose and develop the future leaders of our great state,” Struhs says.
Sumner says the fellowship has been invaluable and has given her a fresh outlook on state government. “As a group we’ve significantly evolved over the course of this year,” Sumner says. “We have, each of us, become experts in our field. We’re young, we’re informed, and we have the rare opportunity to make significant contributions to both our own learning and the citizens of the state.”
Contact Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org, Hrdlicka at email@example.com, Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org, Sumner at email@example.com, Morrison at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Struhs at email@example.com.