By Lindsey Nichols
There’s a sharp learning curve in the intern world, that’s for sure. Especially working at the United States Capitol.
To start off the year, we had a snow day that shut down the entire D.C. metro area, on top of being in the midst of the longest shutdown in U.S. history (35 days). What a great time to be in the nation’s capital.
The good news for congressional interns was that partial government shutdowns don’t affect the legislative branch, so the House and Senate were still in business. I’m interning for a Republican Texas Representative in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, which has been full of exciting legislation and political conflict just one month into the 116th Congress.
As a congressional intern, you sort of feel out of place. Here are all these full-time staffers, these career politicians, these people who spend their lives on Capitol Hill, and you walk in as this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college kid who knows literally nothing. Even if you think you know what you’re doing, odds are you don’t. For some offices, having a perfectly fine-tuned routine and incorporating an intern into the mix is like throwing a wrench into all their plans and processes.
A wrench who will receive instructions, likely mess up what they were told and so their work must be undone and then redone, all costing the staff assistant or legislative aide in charge of them time and energy in fixing the mistakes. In all honesty, it would probably have been easier for them to just do it rather than explain it to the wrench.
But the good news is the folks in my office are incredibly understanding, patient, and supportive. They want to see me succeed in both the goals of the Congressman’s office and my own professional life, which makes it all a worthwhile experience.
In addition, there are over 500 congressmen on the hill, and each has at least one intern in their office. So even if I feel out of place sometimes, I know that there are hundreds of other interns going through the exact same trial and errors.
On my first day in the office, I was most excited about answering phones and speaking with constituents. I’m a huge people person, and I also just love those old-school phones with 75 buttons and flashing lights.
I was so excited to answer my first constituent phone call, in fact, that I put them on hold, jumped out of my chair and proudly told the press secretary that he had a call on line 2.
“Okay… but who is it? And what do they want?” he replied.
Since then I’ve answered upwards of 500 phone calls, from the angriest to the kindest of folks from the Deep East Texas.
Everyone asks why I’m working for a Texan as a Colorado girl—why aren’t I working in one of the Rocky Mountain offices?
Truthfully, I identified most strongly with Congressman Babin and his platforms, and the hospitality I felt from his staff was absolutely unparalleled. His district is replete with American farmers, a demographic I can find common ground with. As a first-generation college student from a combined line of Colorado wheat-farming cattle ranchers + world-traveling Southern Californians, I was brought up with a wealth of experiences that have shaped my diverse worldview. From studying abroad and traveling the world, I’ve had quite a journey throughout college. This internship is another exciting part of that journey, and I’m loving every minute of it (almost).
What I Hate
- Being more harm than help.
It’s difficult not to succumb to feeling useless, in the way, or burdensome to the staff sometimes. I’m eager to learn and help out in any way I can, but it’s often at the expense of the other staffers’ time.
- Full-time staffers have different relationships with each other that seem exclusive since they’ve lived and worked here together for 3+ years.
As a sufferer of perpetual FOMO, this was a tough pill to swallow. Interns can be friendly with full-time staffers, but they’re still just that… interns. From staffer engagement parties to exclusive receptions to concerts, karaoke and trivia nights–I’m learning to live vicariously through my co-workers, but still… it’s rough.
- WAKING UP EARLY.
I’m not a morning person in the slightest. Think somewhere between Night of the Living dead and a bear being woken up from hibernation early. I’ve also never had a full-time job before, so juggling that with three classes during the week and trying to go out and have a social life is exhausting.
And when that alarm goes off each morning…
What I Love
- Being busy. And doing stuff that matters.
The high-energy, fast-paced, deadline-driven work that results in tangible change in Congress is awesome. There’s always hundreds of phone calls to answer, Capitol tours to be given, and documents to be delivered. One of the main reasons I love politics is that there’s always something new happening–there’s some new story you can be reading or some new policy you can be researching. I live for the hustle and bustle, and there’s no place that has that quite like Capitol Hill.
- The people.
The staffers in my office are some of the most amazing folks I’ve ever met, and so is the congressman. They’re kind, successful, and driven, yet also light-hearted–they know when they need to be getting things done but also when to stop and have a nerf gun war from time to time to keep things lively.
- The opportunities.
I love communicating with people, and this internship is largely self-driven. You have to go out and network and communicate with others if you want to get somewhere, and there are so many receptions and meetings that open the door for that.
It truly is an internship based on the principle of, “You get out of it what you put into it,” and I absolutely love that.
What I’ve Learned
- Politics is all about deflecting.
Saying less is always more. And while I believe it’s not good to lie, I’m learning the art of giving a general answer and turning it around into a question for the other person. Put the ball in their court, and if they want to press for more information, you can be strategic about it.
In addition, politics is a balancing act, and we’re here to represent hundreds of thousands of people in our home district. I do everything in my power to help the constituents who call in and give them the best customer service they’ve ever received. While their opinions matter most to us, I’ve learned you can’t always please everyone.
- Treat the janitors like the CEO (or congressmen).
Seriously. This is a value my grandma always taught me, but it’s being constantly reaffirmed on Capitol Hill. D.C. truly is a small town and everyone knows someone, so being rude, entitled, or lazy can ruin future job opportunities. Treat every single person you meet with respect, because you never know who you’re talking to or what type of impression you’re leaving.
I saw this firsthand with another intern who was joking around with a man in the hallway and made some questionable remarks, later to find out that was actually a congressman and not just a young staffer like she had assumed.
You hate to see it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
I suck at asking questions. I don’t want to appear ignorant or bother anyone, but I’ve learned that’s actually more dangerous because I may do something incorrect and cost the office something huge.
I’m actively working on improving it everyday and asking for help or instruction when I need it. Because at the end of the day, everyone in our office is on the same team and it’s always better when we can all communicate effectively and help each other succeed.
When I first began on Capitol Hill, it seemed surreal that I was actually there. Like living in a postcard, or in this fairytale land you see on the news with all these fictional characters who I often forget are real people.
It often feels just like working at the Colorado State Capitol, except I passed Nancy Pelosi while running an errand and there are about 50 armed and ready-to-fire capitol police watching me on my walk to work each morning. It’s quite reassuring, actually.
I’m still getting used to the confusing tunnels underneath the Capitol, and keeping up with the news 24/7, but those are things I’ll master over time. I’m trying to make the most of my 16 weeks here and put as much effort into this internship as possible, because they took a chance on me and I want to show them it was the right decision.
Hopefully this time will help me contemplate my career aspirations and open doors for a future in politics and beyond. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a small town, first generation college girl like me, and I’m so grateful to be here.
Ultimately, as a young, politically-driven and incredibly patriotic American living in the heart of our nation’s highly-charged political climate, there’s truly no place I’d rather be.