Oklahoma State University - Stillwater

Washington, DC Internship Experience

Maggie Hill

Sometime in the middle of my freshman year, I began wondering how I would spend my first summer after beginning college. Would I lifeguard? Would I take summer school? Would I work at the Gap? I was sick of doing the same old thing and staying around in Edmond, Oklahoma, so I decided to think about other options available to me.

Because I am a political science and business double major, I knew that I wanted to explore options that would help me gain experience in those areas. After talking with friends, relatives, and OSU faculty, I decided to look into getting an internship. Not only do internships give a glimpse into different areas of the ‘real world,’ but they also help better prepare for future careers. For me, my internship helped me decide what area of politics interests me most.

As an avid traveler, I had been to Washington, DC two times, and had loved the atmosphere of our nation’s capital. I decided that I wanted to intern in DC so that I could decide if I like the area well enough to consider attending graduate school there.

Applying for the internship was an extremely tedious process. After meeting Senator Don Nickles several years ago, I was left with a good impression of the way he deals with people. I also talked to several people who had interned for him, and they had nothing but positive remarks regarding their experiences. I got on the Internet and went to Senate.com. There, I clicked on my preferred congressman’s link, and, once I arrived at his website, I found another link called ‘internships.’ All I had to do was download the application, fill it out, write an essay, and get the correct references and recommendations. This took several hours of preparation and organization, but it paid off. I got my recommendations from people who know me extremely well, who have worked with me for a sufficient amount of time, and who know the quality of work I am capable of producing. Having a stranger write my recommendation would not have helped me at all, even if that stranger held a high-ranking position.

I had my honors college advisor, my high school counselor, and a family friend write my letters. At the appropriate time, I asked if I could proofread, or have someone else proofread, the recommendations before they were sent in with my application. I made sure to send all of my information in together, because Senator Nickles’ office, and I am sure most other offices, is flooded with papers and packages. Sending everything in together ensured that nothing was lost or misplaced.

Walking back to my dorm room from class, I receive a call. "Hello Maggie, this is Senator Nickles’ intern coordinator. Congratulations, you have been chosen to intern." A week later, I received a large, brown package containing a list of the other twelve interns for my session, Senator Nickles’ biography, the history of the Capitol, what to expect as an intern, and instructions on how to go about finding housing in the infamously expensive city.

I contacted two of Senator Nickles’ other interns and asked them if they wanted to room with me. Luckily, the two girls were friendly and wanted to be my roommates. I know that not all potluck roommate situations turn out to be positive, and I am extremely thankful that my two roommates and I quickly became friends.

After searching through several summer housing programs offered by various DC universities, we decided to room at George Washington University because of its cost, location, and reputation. Even though we had to pay extra because we were not GWU students, the extra amount was worth the cost because of the convenience and safety of our dorms.

Upon arriving in DC, we moved in and decided to navigate the Metro (subway) system so that we would not be late to our first day of work. The metro system is easy to navigate, and the underground area is remarkably clean and safe. GWU dorms are within walking distance of Georgetown, and we went on many walks into the trendy area. Flooded with shops and chic restaurants, Georgetown is not for those on a budget. On the few occasions we felt like going out to a nice restaurant and having a good time, we headed straight for Georgetown.

At our first day on the job, after walking from the Union Station Metro stop and entering the high security Hart office building, all thirteen interns were escorted into the large conference room and met by our intern coordinator. After everyone was introduced, we learned what our internship entailed. Every morning, we would sort the mail, faxes, and e-mail before doing anything else. If we were going to be late, we needed to call our coordinator at the office and let her know. After sorting papers, we would then check in with the staff member to whom we were assigned for the week to see if that person needed any assistance, i.e. any research, errands, or other jobs done.

Because Senator Nickles is a member of the Senate’s leadership team (he is the Assistant Republican Leader), he has an office in the Hart office building and an office in the Capitol. His busy schedule cannot be handled alone. Senator Nickles has a large staff consisting of Legislative Assistants (LA), Legislative Correspondents (LC), a Legislative Director (LD), a Chief of Staff, two schedulers, two press secretaries, several secretaries, and four research analysts. These are just his staff members in Washington DC. He also has offices in Ponca City, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Lawton.

I was surprised to see what actually comes in the mail. The DC office receives several (up to five) bundles of mail a day. Most of the mail is letters from concerned Oklahomans fulfilling their civic duties and voicing their opinion; however, we received a lot of newsletters and updates from interest groups and organizations wanting the Senator to endorse their cause. Legislative Assistants read all of the newsletters so that they can stay updated on the current state of important issues. Even Playboy sends the Senator a magazine each month. Of course, Senator Nickles did not actually subscribe to Playboy; they just send a copy to all of the Congressmen for free so that they can advertise that the nation’s leaders receive the magazine. Things like this are considered junk mail and go directly to the trash. Other items categorized under this title are mail from out of state citizens, mail without a return address, and newsletters that are too old to be considered current (over 6 months old). This group of mail currently makes up about one half of the total mail received.

Because of added precautions post-9-11, the amount of old mail we receive has greatly increased. After the anthrax scare in the Hart building (in an office directly across the hall from ours), the government required all mail to be sent through a radiation chamber and "cooked" before it reached the personal offices of the Congressmen. When beginning this routine, screeners had to experiment with the temperature at which the mail would be cooked. At first, they overcooked mail and it came out black, burned, and unreadable. After several test runs, the proper baking temperature was established, and that temperature is used on all incoming mail.

Many concerned citizens are not aware about this precautionary measure, and they send in things that should not be cooked. For instance, one day, while opening the mail, I came upon a package stating, "VHS tape enclosed, do not expose to extreme heat." The screeners are not allowed to adhere to requests like that, and, when I opened the package, I discovered a melted, disfigured tape. We have also received melted CD cases, cassette tapes, and other plastic items.

The anthrax scare had another impact on the mail process. Posted on the wall above the mail desk was a poster illustrating what to do if we opened an envelope containing suspicious material. If that occurred, we were instructed to immediately walk to the nearest bathroom with the letter and lock the door. An emergency cell phone was stored on the counter top at all times so that we could call the front desk of the Senator’s office and inform others of the situation without taking the risk of contaminating others. Nothing even remotely close to this ever happened, but we were prepared for the worst.

Once the constituent letters, e-mails, and faxes are sorted into topics, they are then filed accordingly and sent to the LCs. Each of the three LCs is assigned to twenty topics. They are well researched on all of the topics, and they can typically answer any question constituents ask. Responding quickly to constituent mail is an important piece of the political puzzle. If constituents are not happy with Senator Nickles, he will not be able to continue serving as a senator because he will not be reelected. The entire mail response process was upsetting to me at first, because I, like many constituents, naively believed that Senator Nickles wrote all response letters personally. I was upset to find out that he does not even see any of the constituent mail, let alone write response letters. Obviously, it would be impossible for him to do so considering that he receives approximately five huge bundles each day. As one would imagine, the build-up of mail from each weekend makes every Monday extremely hectic.

When I went to check in with my pre-assigned staff member, Don Kent, a Legislative Assistant, he informed me that I would be doing research on various topics and writing up reports that Senator Nickles would review before his committee meetings. I was excited to find out that some of my research could actually become a topic of discussion at one of his meetings.

After researching several topics and writing up five one-page-reports, I learned that Senator Nickles is extremely dependent on his staff. Without the hard work of behind-the-scenes people, he would never be able to stay updated on all of the issues concerning him and his office.

Even though Senator Nickles seldom does his own research, he does manage to keep a busy schedule. While talking with his personal scheduler, I learned that he runs from meeting to meeting, plays golf about four times a week with other businessmen and politicians, meets with constituents, speaks on the Senate floor, and travels back to Oklahoma several times a year without missing a beat. His high level of face-to-face interaction is what allows him to continue to succeed in his field.

Although he seldom has a moment to spare, Senator Nickles made an enormous effort to spend quality time with all of the interns. Because there were thirteen of us, he had to work very hard to get to know all of us on an individual basis. From talking with all of the other interns, I realize that he accomplished his goal.

Personally, my interaction with Senator Nickles was frequent because I often got to work in the Whip office. He took me down on the Senate floor a couple of times, which is an impossible feat for most Senators. Only the four Senators in leadership have floor passes. One time, while I was stiffly sitting in the bench against the wall of the Senate floor, Senator Nickles called me over to talk to him in the middle of the room at his chair. Astounded, I began walking over to his seat. Before I arrived, I tripped on a step. This incident would have been embarrassing anywhere, but the fact that it was broadcast on C-Span made it mortifying. Nickles just laughed with me and made me feel comfortable. I ended up getting to sit by him while he gave a 25-minute speech on the Death Tax. Sitting surrounded by some of the nation’s most prominent leaders and policy makers will stand out as one of the most memorable experience of my entire internship.

In addition to the perks of working with a senator on leadership, we also received perks just for being interns. The thirteen interns Senator Nickles had for his June session is quite typical of most senators and representatives. There are 535 members of Congress who each have approximately ten interns. The massive amount of interns on the hill each summer attend events planned by staff members from different legislators’ offices who come together and brainstorm fun ideas. We enjoyed an intern ice cream social, an intern lecture series (consisting of speakers such as Trent Lott, Martin Scheen, Tom Daschle, Joseph Liberman, and many more), and an intern Bible study luncheon. All of this interaction provided wonderful opportunities for me to establish contacts with people from all over the country and make friends with youths from different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions than those to which I am accustomed.

Because thousands of interns and other staff members work in the congressional office buildings at all times, security precautions must be taken. Before 9-11, everyone entering an office building had to first pass through a metal detector. Now, not just anyone can enter the buildings. Only people wearing a congressional staff badge complete with a nametag and a photo can enter the Capitol. Packages can no longer be delivered to congressmen’s offices. Someone from the receiving party’s office must pick up the package outside of the building and open it before reentering. This precautionary measure seems tedious at times, but it prevents possible bombs and other unwanted items from being brought into buildings holding the world’s leaders. Security officers also are cautious with cars entering the staff parking lot. By using large mirrors on poles to check underneath cars as they enter, officers can see whether or not a bomb has been planted. These added precautions might not make Capitol Hill 100% terrorist proof, but they do provide extra comfort in the tense and stressful environment Washington DC has become.

Aside from working on the hill, there were many other things to do and see in our nation’s capital. Our intern coordinator made every effort possible to inform us of every concert, free exhibit, or community event occurring during our stay. She even gave us one afternoon off to "explore the city." We used that afternoon to walk through the Holocaust museum and go see the Smithsonian museums. One evening, when we felt the weather was dry and cool enough for us to handle, my roommates and I went on a walk after work. Living at Washington Circle provided the perfect location for sightseeing. After walking for about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Viet Nam Wall. After inscribing names onto a piece of paper, we walked two minutes over to the Lincoln Memorial. When we finished reading the Gettysburg Address, we turned around and viewed the Washington Monument cast against the evening sky. While walking the length of the pool, we came upon hundreds of teams playing softball on the mall. After watching a few pitches and home runs, we walked over to the White House and saw that the First Lady and the President were also outside enjoying the weather. Although we did not get to discuss our pleasant evening with the two of them, we discussed it with each other on our 20-minute walk home. We were pleased to find out that we experienced several of DC’s highlights in a short three hours.

Along with seeing historical sights in DC, my friends and I also attended a taping of Crossfire, a political debate show taped nightly. Another night, one of my roommates and I were able to snag tickets to an invitation-only Expo hosted by General Motors. General Motors was hosted the expo complete with expensive food and drinks, futuristic cars, and elegantly dressed people as part of their strategy in lobbying for money.

Because I was not used to the rigorousness of a 9-6 workday, I was often tired and too worn out to go out on weeknights. Most evenings, my roommates and I came home from work, cooked dinner, and started getting ready for bed at around 10 pm. Because we woke up at 6:30 every morning, it was necessary for us to go to bed before midnight in order to be able to face another day of Capitol tours, faxes, mail, and research. By eating breakfast and dinner at home and taking our lunches with us to work, we saved time and money; however, we ended up spending our saved money on entertainment and outings during our stay.

Celebrities often make appearances at rallies, Senate sessions, committee meetings, and galas to promote movies, charities, and other projects they are involved with. Because Senator Nickles’ offices are both in prime celebrity-sighting locations, I was able to see several prominent figures. One day I say Colin Powell walking out to his car from the Hart office building. I saw Nicholas Cage walking by Senator Nickles’ Capitol office as he was entering the Senate gallery to promote his new movie. Five minutes after that, I got to hold the door open for Kay Bailey Hutchinson as she stepped outside and into the black car awaiting her. I even had the opportunity to meet Josh Hartnet who was in town supporting a youth charity. Before Senator Liberman and Martin Scheen spoke at a Democratic rally, I shook hands, took pictures, and talked with both of them.

I often sat in the Senate gallery and watched all of the Senators interact with one another during roll call votes. Watching them interact was interesting because I was surprised to see that not everything that occurs in the Capitol is proper and stiff-lipped. Senators converse like long-time neighbors would--patting one another on the back, cracking jokes, and enjoying themselves. Even as I watched the Senators step into the "Senators only" elevators, I observed that they were just like me. When they have a free, unscheduled second of time, they are willing to talk to interns about topics ranging from politics to sports. Yet even Senator Nickles’ staff members, who talk to him every day, are fascinated with their boss. They both admire and respect him for his dedication to our country and for his down-to-earth personality.

While talking with a friend who worked in the Old Executive Office Building one afternoon, I was invited to be one of 20 people to watch President Bush take off on Marine 1 early the next morning. I had to give my name, social security number, phone number, and date of birth to my friend so that he could send my information in for a background check. After I was checked and cleared, I was issued a pass to attend the departure the next morning. I arrived at the White House at 5:30 am only to find out that the President would not be taking off as scheduled because rain had made the landing pad slick. Luckily, I decided to stick around in hopes of catching a glimpse of him as he walked from the back door of the White House to his caravan of cars. President Bush felt badly that all 20 of us woke up early and stood in the cold rain to see him, so he decided to personally thank us for coming that morning. As I shook hands and conversed with the President of the United States, I could not help but think that my experience in Washington, DC was one of the most exciting events in my entire life. My picture with the President reminds me of that morning when my bad luck turned into the most memorable moment of my entire internship.

On the night before our last day of work, all of Senator Nickles’ interns were invited over to his chief of staff’s house for a pizza party. This evening, filled with food, friends, and laughter, made me realize that my internship left me with more than a wonderful experience that will look good on my resume. It left me with new friends in a new city who I can count on to be there for me. The friendships I made over sack lunches and constituent mail will last a lifetime. I recommend interning, in Washington, DC or anywhere, to anyone interested in an intellectually stimulating summer full of new surroundings and fresh faces.


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