Hokies on the Hill program aids student's journey toward a career in politics
May 1, 2023
Finding a career path after high school can be a daunting task. That's why Virginia Tech offers programs designed to introduce students to industries and organizations that may be a first stop after graduating from the university.
Christa Potgieter took advantage of such an opportunity.
A former professional musician and actor in South Africa, Potgieter is a junior at Virginia Tech. The next potential step in her career? A foreign affairs job in Washington, D.C., thanks in part to the Hokies on the Hill program.
Born in Mission Viejo, California, to South African parents, Potgieter returned with her family to their home country when she was 2 years old. The family settled in Pretoria, the country’s capital, where she became immersed in the arts. Potgieter danced for 13 years and learned to sing as well as play the piano and violin.
Impressed by her performance during the South African Talent Championships for singing, one of the event judges recruited her to his musical theater program.
“What I loved most about musical theater was that I got to do so much more than sing and act on stage. We learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes, like doing makeup and recording background music. Some of the best friends I made were during that time,” she said.
After a couple years of performing in theater productions, Potgieter's mentors in theater and music guided her toward a career in pop music. She was 12 years old when she began recording under the pseudonym “LiiLa,” a nickname her mother coined when she was younger. After navigating some challenges with production companies and eventually taking her music independent, Potgieter released her debut album. Soon after, she was nominated for a Ghoema Music Award, the preeminent awards organization for Afrikaans language music.
“I was nominated for the best pop album by a female artist,” Potgieter said. “I wasn’t even up for newcomer of the year. I was all of a sudden thrown into this pool of adults.” At the time, she was the youngest person to be nominated for the award. “I did not win, did not expect to win at all, like I knew that was not going to happen. I was just so grateful to have my album show up on that screen.”
Although Potgieter hasn’t put her musical dreams completely to rest, the life of a touring pop star was grueling, so she put her singing career on hold to enter high school.
“I was missing a lot of things with school, with hanging out with friends, and I just didn’t find joy in singing anymore,” she said.
Soon after Potgieter enrolled in high school, her father’s company was purchased by General Electric, and he was offered a position in Roanoke. The family returned to the United States, where Potgieter finished high school and later applied to Virginia Tech’s biology program.
“When you’re in ninth grade in South Africa, you take a test and it shows you what your strongest subjects are. One of mine was biology, so I decided to apply there,” Potgieter said.
Once at Virginia Tech, however, she didn’t feel the same affinity for her chemistry studies. Remembering that she loved studying the government in high school, she changed her major to political science.
While visiting friends in Maryland who had graduated with political science degrees, Potgieter learned more about the Hokies on the Hill program, which she had heard about through her academic advisor. “They said it was amazing, that it could kickstart your political career, you have got to do it,” she recalled. “So I wrote my application the next day on the train back.”
Her application was accepted, and after interviews with two political science professors, she was assigned to Sen. Tim Kaine’s office.
“When we did our applications, we had to put down our top five offices, and depending on your interview, they matched you up accordingly. Tim Kaine was my No. 1 choice,” said Potgieter.
From day one, she said, the experience has been incredible, if surreal. “On my first day, my administrative director, she told us to just go get lost in the Capitol, because that’s the only way you’re going to learn your way. So for two hours, another intern and I were just walking around with our badges, getting into places you normally can’t go into. I felt like I should not be here, but I was.”
Potgieter said her time with Kaine’s office has been life-changing. “It sounds so cliché to say, I know, but it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened in my life. You get a chance to live in a big city, going from Blacksburg to Washington, D.C.”
Day to day, Potgieter experiences different facets of the legislative process. She answers calls from Kaine’s constituents, assists with administrative and research work for his staff, and attends senate hearings and briefings. On Fridays, Hokies on the Hill participants meet for a two-hour seminar with the program’s facilitators as well as guest speakers from various parts of the federal government.
The students learn about the federal legislative process, from the structure and roles of the three branches of government to the lobbying and advocacy groups that influence them. They also practice the interpersonal skills that are critical for involvement in the political process, learning ways to write and speak more effectively and influentially.
“They sat with me, gave me personal input on my writing and all these resources I could use, guidance I’ve never gotten in school before," said Potgieter. “And now I feel like I can write a constituent letter on behalf of a senator.”
Experiencing so many aspects of the federal legislative process has helped Potgieter determine a future direction for her political science degree. “I’d love to consider law school around the area while I pursue a role in foreign affairs. Being from South Africa, it’s very important to me to see more focus and attention given to the African countries.”
One of the biggest perks of the program for Potgieter now, though, is the opportunity to see the Rotunda every day. “I’ve been in the gallery for the Senate twice now, and it’s absolutely beautiful. But the Rotunda is mind boggling with how big it is,” she said. “And all the paintings, it’s so much to take in. You see something new every time you go.”
Her advice to students who may be considering the Hokies on the Hill program?
“Just apply. I’ve learned so much about myself, about politics, about relationships with people,” she said. “It’s a lot you cannot learn in textbooks, because you’re immersed in the experience.”
Written by Joshua Sweeney