Today is Saturday, which means that AZ, NY, TX and I have all survived our first week interning on Capitol Hill. I think it is safe to say we were all thrown a bit out of our comfort zone by the experience, but that’s the best way to learn and grow. As I look back over the week, I realize how interesting it is that time and time again I am convinced that I can’t do something or won’t be able to handle a situation up until I am actually faced with it. I suppose that’s the case for all of us; after all, how could we be sure of what we are actually capable of except by pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible?
I tend to throw myself into situations like this where I know I’ll be uncomfortable and out of place. I remember one summer while I was still in high school, I chose to take a job detasseling corn fields (I am from Iowa, remember?) Detasseling basically consists of walking through corn fields for several hours in the summer sun and removing a part of the corn plant so that it will be pollinated the way the farmer intends. The pay wasn’t very good, we were on our feet for long periods of time, the hours were terrible, and I was subjected to the cold dew of the very early morning and the blazing heat of the noon sun. I distinctly recall thinking, as I signed up for the job, “Let’s see if I can handle this.” I did it more for the challenge than the pay.
Despite a bad run-in with dehydration, it all worked out. I stuck it out for the summer.
My adventure in Washington, D.C. is just the latest in a long stream of instances where I’ve said to myself “Let’s see if I can handle this.”
This first week was no disappointment in this regard.
Monday, Our First Day:
Our first day it rained profusely, and being the 20 somethings that we all are, not a single one of us out of AZ, NY, TX, or myself had packed an umbrella. Despite this, NY decided to walk (he’s the one with the seemingly infinite supply of energy), AZ took the metro to her office, and TX decided to spring for a cab for us (he’s nice like that). As we all parted ways to go to our particular offices, wishing each other well on our first days, it became clear that we were all on our own from 9-6.
(I should note briefly that I wear gender-conforming “men’s” suits to work here, a fact about which I am somewhat ambivalent. I feel slightly awkward being read consistently as a man despite that not being my self-concept, but at the same time I am glad for not sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the nation’s capitol. It’s strange, and I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic.)
The first day at a new job is not unlike the first day of a new school semester-there is a lot of orientation, reading of general briefings about the tasks you’ll be doing, and the like. I familiarized myself with Microsoft Outlook, learned how to sort through the mail in the mailroom (a perennial task for legislators, who can receive hundreds of pieces of mail per day) and met other interns in my office.
The coolest part by far was receiving my Capitol ID badge, which allows me to access the office buildings and the Capitol as a staffer. This serves the practical purpose of my being able to get past Capitol police to go to work, but it also allows me special access to certain areas of the Capitol such as the underground subway system, parts of the Library of Congress, etc. which feels very prestigious and which aren’t accessible to most people.
I’ve never worked full-time hours before, but 9-6 went by surprisingly fast. I found out that AZ, NY, and TX all had similarly orientation-heavy days, and after a brief stop by our shared apartment, AZ, TX and I went off to celebrate our first day at a delicious local Vietnamese place.
My second day in the office was a continuation of Monday’s orientation, and also consisted of researching facts about the Capitol, as I’ll be giving Capitol tours after a few weeks. This seems like an exciting task, and I hope that by the end of my time here I’ll have absorbed a wealth of knowledge about the Capitol building and its art, history, and peculiar stories to share with folks back home.
I also spotted a couple of senators while at the office, which reminded me that, if you’re working on Capitol Hill, even if you are just sorting mail, you share a proximity with many of the big-name movers and shakers of U.S. politics.
In the evening, we all took it easy. After a weekend which included brief trips to see the White House, the Washington Monument, the Library of Congress, and various shopping and restaurant excursions, I was somewhat exhausted by the never-dull city life.
Wednesday, The First Free Reception
Wednesday I had the privilege of going on a tour of the Capitol and get trained in using CRS. CRS stands for Congressional Research Services, and they are an organization out of the Library of Congress which solely serve Congress’s research needs. They have a wealth of information about every topic you could think of, and probably the best condensed information available about our nation’s proposed bills and resolutions as well as passed laws. I was also given a shared research project, which shows that they waste no time in making interns useful on Capitol Hill.
The main event of our day was the fact that AZ, NY, TX and I all attended our first free reception. Receptions are a way of life in D.C. Because so much political power is packed into one place, various advocacy organizations flock to D.C. in order to influence the decision-makers. The cabinet members and legislators themselves, of course, can’t attend every single function, nor are many of the groups prestigious enough to attract their personal attention, so most of the receptions invite Congressional staff, which includes us interns. The result is a kind of win-win for everyone involved: the advocacy groups reach people with proximity to power, and the underpaid or unpaid staff and interns get to attend a reception with free food, networking opportunities, and often an open bar.
The reception we went to was right after work, and took place in the beautiful United States Botanic Garden, complete with various trees, ferns, and flowers. Between mini plates of hors d’oeuvres, a glass of wine for those of us who are 21+, and the chance to walk around in the beautiful, lit-up glass dome of the Botanic Gardens, attending the reception was definitely a perk that AZ, NY, TX and I all enjoyed.
We need to improve our networking skills and meet new people, but in the meantime we observed our fellow guests and played a game I suggested called “bedside table”, where you point out someone and guess a few items they might have on their bedside table. It’s an interesting people-watching game for moments when you may feel a little out of place. I suggest you try it.
I’m trying my best to soak up all the sights, sounds, and feelings of moments like the reception. It seems like one of those experiences that are fairly unique to places like D.C.
Thursday, Memos and Lesbioke
Your job as an intern on the Hill is to make life easier for the legislator’s staff. You obviously want to learn, grow, make connections, and even find employment opportunities, but your primary objective is to be of assistance to the office you work in. If you understand this going into the internship-that it really isn’t about you-I think you can, interestingly enough, fulfill both objectives more easily.
Memos up until this point in my life seemed like merely plot points on office sitcoms, but on Thursday I wrote my first memo. Memos in a Hill office are often short research projects or note-taking duties at various Congressional Hearings. I personally had a research project to complete in only a few hours. Although I made a small error, I was able to complete it on-time and to the standards of the office, which boosted my confidence. It was definitely a good way to end the portion of my week spent at the office.
Thursday evening after work, I quickly changed out of my suit into floral “women’s” skinny jeans- a strangely apt metaphor for the state of my gender right now- and headed to a queer women’s establishment with AZ and NY that was hosting a karaoke night while TX decided to catch up on sleep. Lesbioke was a decidedly freeing process after a week of buttoned-up professionalism. We listened to an older lesbian couple sing sad country songs from the 90′s and ourselves got up the courage to yell Iconopop’s “I Love It” at the top of our lungs. It was a moment of unbridled youth and beauty, the kind of moment that belongs in an indie film about young people coming of age.
For AZ, NY, TX and I, work weeks are Monday-Thursday because we have leadership training on Fridays. The weekends are ours to explore D.C., which I should probably get up and start doing now. I’m sure after the weekend there will be plenty more adventures to report.
-Daye in D.C.