U. student to intern with Colbert

Comedy class • Hinckley Institute has connections to Comedy Central crew.
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Washington, D.C. • University of Utah student Whitney Benns is set to cap off her undergraduate career in New York City as an intern with the popular satirical news show The Colbert Report.

Like many college students, Benns said she's a devoted fan of Colbert and excited for the chance to help with his Comedy Central show.

"I think he's brilliant in the way he uses satire and comedy to make complex political systems" easy to understand, she said.

The 22-year-old, who is majoring in political science and international studies, says the internship dovetails well with her past experience in politics and government and is a unique fit heading into law school, which she plans to start in the fall.

Benns landed the coveted internship thanks to Kirk Jowers, director of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a partner at Caplin & Drysdale, the law firm that handles host Stephen Colbert's super PAC.

Jowers, a campaign-finance lawyer, has done some limited work on the Colbert Report's super PAC segments and that gave him a chance to create an opportunity for Benns.

"I told the executive producer that I have this incredible student and I would love to have her back there," Jowers said. "And they were nice enough to take her for the summer. It's one of those cases where they think they are doing me a favor, but two days after she starts they will praise me forever."

Benns' arrival at the Colbert Report will mark her fourth internship through the Hinckley Institute, including a gig last summer with the British Parliament, a first for the U.'s political center.

Politics, it seems, has always been an interest of the Layton native.

Benns first jumped into the political arena when she wasn't yet a teen, stirring up her sixth-grade class debating whether more funding should be put toward health care or the exploration of Mars.

By junior high, she was a mock trial junkie. At Layton High School, she led the debate team for two years.

"I'm a true debate nerd at heart," Benns said. "I've done a lot of other things, but I think at my core that's what I've always loved … It's a really good exercise in defining your own political views for yourself."

She describes herself as an "anomaly" in her family. With her mother and aunts in the medical field, her father in business and a brother in chemical engineering, Benns is charting her own course in the political realm.

And her resume maps her ambitions.

In her sophomore year, Benns joined the staff of the Hinckley Institute as its only student employee and recently launched a high school outreach program to get students thinking politically.

"The idea is to create a baseline of knowledge about the political system … because it is so essential that they get involved at that level," Benns said.

She's also worked with KUED on Utah's gubernatorial debates and currently works as a research assistant to former Sen. Bob Bennett.

In February, Benns was among three U. students selected as finalists for the prestigious Truman Scholarship for her policy proposal focusing on the elimination of institutional barriers that restrict minority, poor, elderly and young voters.

For now, her most pressing decision is choosing between Harvard and Stanford law schools.

The soon-to-be graduate visited Cambridge last weekend and will be making a stop at Stanford in a few days, hoping the trip will ease the process.

Benns' ultimate dream job is to work at the Department of Justice in the civil rights division.

lschmitz@sltrib.com Editor's note: Laura Schmitz is interning with The Salt Lake Tribune's Washington bureau through the Hinckley Institute.