My summer as a Senate intern was a surreal experience filled with new perspectives and unique opportunities, a whirlwind experience unlike any job I’ve ever had.
From responding to constituent voicemails to running papers to the cloakroom, these responsibilities served as a necessary rite of passage providing important lessons on interacting with the public and learning what makes Congress tick.
What surprised me most were the connections I formed with the brilliant, kind people in the Capitol Hill community. Whether it was grabbing coffee with a staffer or talking through edits on a memo with the legislative team, a large part of my experience was shaped by the advice and example of the people around me.
There were a few key lessons that I learned along the way that I wish I had known on my first day.
Be concise in your writing.
As a student used to hitting word counts and collecting adjectives, I quickly learned that verbosity has no place in a busy congressional office. Particularly for projects such as drafting briefing memos or constituent letters, an intern’s job is to ensure the reader can easily and quickly understand the main points. Although this is a skill that improves with practice, it can be helpful to review samples of congressional memos and letters prior to your internship to know what to expect.
Reach out to those around you for advice.
In a place as high-stakes as Congress, it is easy to be intimidated by the people around you – but there is no need. Not only do most staffers understand that an internship is meant to be a learning experience, but many have been interns themselves and can provide valuable insights. From established staffers to interns alike, it’s common culture to reach out to colleagues for “coffee chats” to form more informal connections. I recommend creating an email template to request these chats that are brief, polite and suggestive of some topics you hope to talk about. “Coffee chats” can certainly be virtual for those who are in remote internship settings.
Be aware of your role in interacting with the public.
From answering phone calls to giving tours of the Capitol, most interns take on a significant number of responsibilities that will put them in touch with people who live in a lawmaker’s home state or district. Though you may feel slightly inexperienced with limited authority, it’s important to remember that your phone call or letter to a constituent may be the only interaction they’ll have with a House or Senate office. Keeping this in mind can help maintain the patience, knowledge and professionalism needed to ensure that people have a positive interaction with your office.
Learn your way around the Capitol.
For those working in person, one of the most exciting perks is your freedom to walk the historical halls of Congress. Don’t be afraid to use your free time or lunch break to explore. If your first few weeks are anything like mine, you might find yourself constantly getting lost. I recommend asking colleagues to show you their favorite spots in the Capitol or tell you what each floor houses (knowing the difference between the basement and ground level will save you hours, trust me). Even if you’re not in DC and you are pursuing a virtual internship, there is lots to explore in Congress’s digital space, such as browsing online historical archives and even following Instagram accounts that share fun stories from Hill interns.
Far from the lore of nameless undergrads fetching coffee, interns are an integral part of the congressional workforce. Although it can be easy to feel insignificant in a sea of important people, remember that congressional internships are intended to prepare future leaders to excel in public service. Whether beginning your internship tomorrow or considering an application, approach the experience with an open mind, a positive attitude and a willingness to learn. Success is sure to follow.
For more information and guidance on how to make successful use of your time on Capitol Hill, join the Alliance for Congress, Popvox and other partners September 9-10, 2021, for a free, virtual orientation intended to provide interns with basic information about the legislative process and Capitol Hill, networking opportunities and tips on how to be a successful intern.
Ellen Lasko is a former government affairs intern at the Partnership for Public Service and the United States Senate.