Student Voices – How my internship in Washington, D.C. made me realize something: our government is run by people

Honors Students away from campus for study abroad, co-ops, or internships are encouraged to write about their experiences to share them with the Honors community. In the post below, Abby Spiegelman ’18 shares her biggest lesson from interning in Washington, D.C.

– By Abigail Spiegelman

My name is Abby Spiegelman and I’m a senior University Studies major with a concentration in Biomedical Science. Two summers ago, I had the privilege of interning for Congressman Bill Flores (TX-17) in his Washington D.C. office.

Abby Spiegelman ’18 and Congressman Bill Flores ’76 (TX-17)

First and foremost, let me confirm and deny some assumptions you might be having at this moment. You are correct in your assumption that interns are at the bottom of the totem pole. Two of us shared a small desk that placed our backs to the door. After our computers, keyboards, and phones were positioned on this desk there was additional room for one of use to place an elbow on the corner. But we were interns, we shouldn’t have expected anything more- and we didn’t.

Nevertheless, you would be wrong to assume that all we did was fetch coffee and copy papers. There was some of that throughout my summer, but there was so much more.  I answered calls from constituents, helped write responses to constituent questions, gave tours of the U.S. Capitol, and attended Congressional committee hearings. These activities were amazing, and I learned from them all. But I don’t consider any of these impactful enough to dedicate this post to.

There is a general progression that interns tend to follow. On the first day we feel extremely important: after all, we’re interning in our nation’s capital. We select few are helping the cogs turn in our legislative branch. However, our bubble is burst when we quickly come to realize that “we select few” is actually applicable to hundreds of other interns, just as qualified (if not more so) as us. We then settle into a dazed stupor as comprehension dawns: the sheer number of people that work on the Hill is intimidating. How will we ever stand out? How will we make an impression? These questions lead to the acceptance phase. We realize that we probably won’t stand out, that the only way we’ll leave an impression is if we do something seriously wrong (and I’m talking “setting the copy machine on fire” wrong). We didn’t go to D.C. to rub elbows; we came to learn. Once we’ve accepted this we hunker down and get to work. That’s when the internship becomes meaningful.

Over the course of my summer I watched congressional staffers do their jobs and sometimes even helped them. I didn’t so much learn about the legislative process, but about the people behind that process. The staffers had good days, they had bad days, and they had days in-between. They made mistakes and were forgiving when I made more. I’m telling you this because there’s a tendency to glorify—or more accurately, vilify—our nation’s capital, and by extension, the people that work there. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, everyone there is someone just like us. They’re people that do the best they can with what they have and hope that that’s enough. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

When I started my internship, I didn’t realize this. I don’t know why; it should have been common sense, but it wasn’t. Congressman Flores has a remarkable staff (yes, of course I’m biased, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong). Every one of his staffers knew what they were doing and how to do it; the shared experience in the office was impressive. Each day I learned something new that I didn’t know before, be it a technical skill or a life lesson. I don’t have the time to write about everything I learned from each person, and you don’t have the patience to read it. Therefore, I’ll pick the one thing that stuck out to me the most about my internship in D.C.

Working in D.C. is not constant fun. The people there are overworked, overqualified, and underpaid. Like all jobs, it has its ups, but not enough to justify the corresponding downs. The volume of calls that I fielded from angry, unappreciative constituents was impressive and not in a good way. But as I stated earlier, there is a vast number of people that work there. Why? Obviously, you have some people that are using these jobs as a stepping stone for something they deem to be better. But most of the people I interacted with over the course of my summer were there because they felt a duty to help their country. It’s that calling, if you will, that keeps staffers working late nights and early mornings for seemingly little benefit. Our government is dependent on these staffers and the members they work for, and that’s why government will never be perfect. My internship taught me to appreciate the imperfections in our government because achieving perfection would mean the loss of the people that make our government meaningful.

Unfortunately, I can’t write about that one moment that changed it all for me. That single, profound occurrence that set me on my future path. That’s because my internship didn’t come down to moments, it came down to people. There are some incredible people that work in Washington, D.C. and there are some not so incredible people that work there too. But meeting and interacting with them all was truly an experience of a lifetime.

I don’t know if I want to work for Congress once I graduate. I still don’t know what I want to do with my post-college life, and that’s okay. But I do know that if I decide I want to work for Congress that I’ll be working alongside some of the most driven and brightest individuals I’ve ever met. Washington, D.C. isn’t for everyone, and Congress is for even fewer. But those few are why I still believe it’s possible for America’s government to be that “shining city on a hill” and why I’ll always appreciate my internship in Washington, D.C.

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