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Philosophy Student and Aspiring Lawmaker Empowered by Panetta Internship in D.C.

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Zachary Zerzo was a sophomore in high school when an accident paralyzed his father and sent his family into large medical debts. The experience motivated Zerzo to pursue a career in law and politics and advocate for affordable health care.

Fullerton’s California major in philosophy and a minor in political science was one of 26 California students who completed an internship in Washington, D.C. during the fall semester as Panetta Scientist.

“There is no safety net to ensure that ordinary citizens do not have to deal with bankruptcy if they have some kind of serious accident,” Zerzo said. “It prompted me to delve deeper into the mechanisms that allow this to happen, and how one might change them.”

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The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, founded in 1997 by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his wife, Silvia Panetta, provides opportunities to study in government, politics, and public policy. The Congressional Internship Program selects participants from the California State University system, Dominican University in California, Saint Mary’s College in California, and Santa Clara University to learn the legislative process first-hand during training in the US House of Representatives.

The president of each institution nominates one Panetta scholar annually for the annual program, which begins each August with a two-week orientation at California’s Panetta Institute in Monterey Bay followed by an 11-week internship in Washington, DC.

The program is back in person this year after going fully online in the fall of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zerzo trained in the office of U.S. Representative Scott Peters (D-CA), who oversees California’s 52nd congressional district, including Coronado, Poway, and northern San Diego.

Although involved in governance on the Cal State Fullerton Moot Court Team, the Board of Trustees of the Resident Student Union, and Associated Students, Inc. Scale. However, he wasn’t sure if he could fund it on his own.

Zachary Zerzo with Leon Panetta
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“A lot of people, including me, don’t have the financial flexibility to do unpaid internships and pay for housing in one of the most expensive areas in the country,” Zerzo said. “This opportunity to have a fully funded three-month Washington experience is truly unique and hard to come by.”

As an intern, Zerzo said he assisted the legislative staff by serving as a liaison between voters and the office and contributing to communications work such as speeches or brief summaries of bills.

“It really boosted my interest in entering politics in Washington, D.C.,” Zerzo said. “I think D.C. is often confused, as if only Ivy League alumni can get into Washington politics and make a difference, but all people can influence legislation.”

Zirzow said the philosophy courses at Cal State Fullerton, especially the introductory course he took with Jonathan Shoemaker, a philosophy lecturer, built a solid foundation for starting his career in politics. Zirzow maintains a 4.0 GPA and plans to graduate next fall.

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