Wisdom for Capitol Hill Interns: After you say “yes”

You’ve just walked out of the office into the vast marble hallway; or more likely, you just hung up the phone.  This is the phone call that will change your life; everything is gravy from here on out, right?  You just accepted an internship on Capitol Hill!  If you’re like I was, this was the moment everything began to change – you wanted to do this for years and its happening!  Now what?  What do you do with the time between accepting the internship and the day you start?  How do you keep your feet on the ground during your internship when your head wants to fly off into the stratosphere faster than the Apollo 11 mission to the moon?

If you want to be able to keep the internship you hopefully just earned – some folks don’t earn it, they’re given it because of who they know; sad, but true – then the most important thing you need to grasp is two simple, yet difficult, words:  expectations management.  This will make or break your experience.  Realize that you’re an intern, one among many.

The legislative staff isn’t going to ask your advice on critical issues of policy.  In fact, if your internship is part of a semester study program with your college or university – and you have to turn in some sort of policy project – you should be asking their advice.   If you get five minutes with the Member of Congress that you’re interning for, for a meet and greet and a picture, treat it as the privilege that it is.   Remember that you’re a Padawan in the midst of Knights and Master of politics and policy; learn from them.  Interns with a teachable spirit are what staffers prefer.  If you fancy yourself the legislative version of Lex Luthor, you’ll have wasted your time and the fall from the pedestal will be painful.

Even though you’ll never be consulted on matters of policy, that doesn’t mean you don’t let legislative staff know what issues you are interested in.  Wise legislative staffers are going to give you a chance to learn if you prove yourself worthy.  This brings up an often unpleasant topic: grunt work.

As an intern on Capitol Hill you’re going to do a lot of grunt work.  Inputting mail, running flags to the flag office, running co-sponsor sheets to the cloakroom, giving tours, answering phones and listening to the same constituent complain about the same thing day in and day out; it’s a rite of passage.  Chances are that the Staff Assistant and even the legislative staff did these before you came along.  In a Congressional environment devoid of the Congressional Page program, running most errands will fall to you.

Realize that interning on Capitol Hill isn’t something that everyone gets to do; you may think that everyone wants to do it, but far fewer have what it takes to actually work in such an environment.  If you’ve made it this far you’ve already distinguished yourself; it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the Top Gun trophy, but you’re at least advancing toward it; somebody gave you your dream shot.  That said, you get out of an internship what you put into it.  If you work hard, chances are that’ll be rewarded.  Prove yourself in the smaller things like giving good tours and inputting mail correctly, and you might move on to drafting response letters or a blog post for the Representative’s website.  As a side note, giving good tours to constituents goes light-years in building goodwill between the Member of Congress and those constituents you gave the tour to and can factor into who they pull the lever for in the next election; the quality of that tour experience is on you (no pressure).

Many years ago a man named Ben Parker told his nephew that with great power comes great responsibility.  Even though you’re not in a position of power, you’re in closer proximity to it than most will ever be, so you have the responsibility to steward that well and uphold the good standing of your Member.  Take Ben Parker’s words and imprint them on the inside of your eyelids, such insight will serve you well.

The odds are that you’ll look back on your experience on Capitol Hill and see it as a time of worthwhile learning and growth in your life.  The legislative branch is a unique place for you to learn new things and hone who you are as you advance toward who you want to become.  May the odds ever be in your favor as you take your first step into a larger world.

Aaron Welty served as a Senior Legislative Assistant on Capitol Hill, where he recruited, trained, managed, and mentored a small army of aspiring political and policy padawans.  You can follow his adventures and musings at  www.aaronwelty.com

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About Aaron

Author, Speaker, and Super Nerd. Aaron Welty speaks and writes regularly connecting the dots of life, faith, and science fiction. Originally from Michigan, he now lives and works in the Washington, D.C. Metro area.

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