Student Capitol Hill interns evaluate experiences

It’s 8 a.m. on a bone-chilling late January day and a cluster of student interns hug the platform of the Tenleytown-AU Metro station. It is here where AU’s Capitol Hill interns start their day, with a copy of The Washington Post in hand and red intern badge, dubbed “the scarlet letter” by many smug locals, dangling from their neck. As the train approaches, they settle in for the hour-long journey to Capitol Hill for another day of answering phone calls and responding to constituent mail.

“[Interning on Capitol Hill] is something that’s emblematic of the internship experience that the general public has about being in Washington, D.C.,” says Christopher Hughes, an internship adviser for students at the School of Public Affairs.

Every season, students flood D.C. for mostly unpaid internships with their congressmen and senators. The blog “Spotted: D.C. [Summer] Interns,” said it best when it defined the “dreaded” summer intern season as a time when “interns swarm in like the eighth plague of Egypt (or the cicadas of 2004).”

With a high turnover rate, a relative abundance of positions and often times menial assigned tasks, what makes Capitol Hill internships special in a city where its seems like every other student majors in political science and harbors the same desire to work in government?

In the book he co-wrote, “Congress and Its Members,” Walter Oleszek, an AU adjunct professor and Congressional Research Service specialist, writes that the average House representative has about 15 full-time staff members and a budget of $1.2 million to pay their salaries. However, as the expectations for congressmen constantly grow, members need as much help as they can get and unpaid interns are sometimes the perfect solution.

Congressional intern duties vary by office, but generally the position includes some degree of clerical work. Reading and drafting letters to constituents, answering calls, running materials to different offices and giving tours of the Capitol building are all standard tasks.

Susey Davis, an AU sophomore double-majoring in political science and economics, is over a month into her internship with Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. She says she was initially surprised by the amount of “grunt work” she was expected to complete.

“You kind of first expect to be a major part of it [the legislative process], but you’re not” Davis says. “You’re doing the small things, which do help in the long run. You’re making sure the congressman is using his time in more appropriate matters, but it’s stuff that can be done by a secretary.”

Hughes, who himself interned with Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., while in college, says it is a misconception that all Capitol Hill interns do is lick envelopes and staple papers together. He argues they are substantive since many students get to work on policy issues and attend hearings, which can become stepping stones to a future in government and policymaking.

“It’s pretty safe to say that you pretty much do need to have at least one Hill internship if you want to work on [Capitol Hill] because it is such a competitive thing to get a job there,” Hughes says.

Montgomery College student Raquel Halsey was interning for former Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., for two months when she was promoted to the position of staff assistant. Despite her 12-hour workdays, she recommends students work on Capitol Hill.

“Just making the connections that I made have continued to help me grow professionally,” says Halsey, 23, who is now employed at a non-profit that works with foster children.

“Even though there were long hours and some days were really hard, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had professionally,” she says.

While Hughes has no concrete figures about how many AU students have previously or are currently interning on Capitol Hill, it is one of the most popular types of internships, especially among political science majors, according to Hughes.

Jackie Frederick, a senior political science major at AU, is part of that statistic. She has been making the long trek to the Rayburn House Office Building for more than three years, first as an intern then as fellow for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. Since she started working for Ros-Lehtinen on and off as a high school sophomore in her home district of Miami, Frederick says her experience has been invaluable. In the unique position of openly being a Democrat in a Republican office, she says one of the most important lessons she has learned is respecting other people’s views.

“What you try to do is take away your personal opinions and just do the job,” Frederick says.

Halsey says dealing with constituents taught her a similar lesson.

“It’s not your job to agree or disagree,” she says. “It’s your job to just listen.”

Ultimately, Davis says she understands the value of her work since she eventually wants to become an elected official.

“It’s all part of the political process,” she says. “I do realize that’s necessary if I ever wanted to campaign.”

Until she was promoted to the position of fellow two years ago, Frederick performed typical intern duties. The transition was a big step, Frederick explains, because it both deepened her research skills and policy knowledge while cementing her desire to work on Capitol Hill as a staffer after she graduates in the spring. Fellows, while not on the payroll, follow a legislative aide and help research a specific legislative area — in Frederick’s case, medical care issues.

Frederick says she would love to work for Ros-Lehtinen after she graduates.

“[Interning on Capitol Hill] is your one step into the door,” she says. “Once you’re inside, the Hill is very loyal.”

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