Starting an internship can be intimidating, but starting an internship in one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the world, the United States Congress, is on a whole other level. When I first arrived in Washington, D.C. last summer for a Hill internship with a local congressman, I had no idea what to expect. In the days leading up to my internship, I spent my time scrolling through article after article about what I should anticipate, but none gave me the full perspective I was searching for. Here are 10 essential things you should know before you begin your congressional internship.
1) Do not spend time stressing about how to get to your assigned office on the first day. Simply walk into the correct office building, go through security, and head to the corresponding office number. If the door is closed, do not embarrass yourself like I did by knocking, just walk on in. Everyone will be expecting you!
2) Be prepared to answer a lot of phone calls. Usually, an office has a custom greeting that is required. Not to worry, though, your intern coordinator will teach you that on the first day. Your coordinator will likely also clue you in on the fact that not everyone who calls the office is going to be kind, or sane, for that matter. The most important thing to remember in these scenarios is to keep your composure; never curse, never speak on behalf of your boss, and never debate a caller. The majority of the calls, though, will be from concerned constituents who simply want to make their voices heard. This is completely encouraged and easy to handle. You will simply put the caller’s opinion in IQ, a computer system that is used in congressional offices, and move on. It is really not too bad once you get the hang of it.
3) Get ready for a workout. Do not underestimate the amount of running around you will be doing while interning at the Capitol. Yes, some days will be slower than others, but most of the time you will be navigating the many underground tunnels that connect the House office buildings to the Capitol to the Capitol Visitor Center to the Senate office buildings. Not to mention the actual office buildings, themselves, which are a whole other animal. If you are interning for a House representative, be prepared to walk throughout the Capitol building while conducting Capitol tours. Don’t be intimidated by these at all; they’re fun and you will have plenty of practice before venturing out on your own.
4) Do not be afraid to ask for help. Whether that be in your own office for instruction or in the hallways of the Capitol complex for directions, it will always be worth it to seek clarification when necessary. Do not waste time being unsure, as it will only end up looking bad on you in the end.
5) Embrace the small tasks. While interning in Congress, do not expect to be asked to write a statement that your boss will reiterate on the Senate floor or to craft some grand legislation that will change the course of the country. Instead, get ready to conduct typical intern responsibilities: sorting mail, refilling the Keurig, creating spreadsheets, running errands, and maybe some legislative research on the side. While these may not be the most exciting tasks, how you handle them will define your presence in the office. Go about them with a positive attitude and complete them efficiently.
6) Dress appropriately. You are not hitting up the bars on Dupont Circle or attending summer camp, you are working in the United States Congress – give it the respect it deserves. Avoid flip flops, stiletto heels, overly-tight clothing, or lounge apparel when showing up for your congressional internship. Feel free to wear comfortable shoes on the commute, but be sure to remember your work shoes to change into upon arrival. On days when Congress is in session, wear business attire and when it is out of session, business casual should be fine.
7) Take advantage of hearings and lectures. One of the greatest things about interning in Congress is having the opportunity to attend committee hearings, bill markups, and lectures. Look on the Senate and House websites to view upcoming hearings and markups and pay attention to your email for notifications from organizations that are hosting speakers. If one of these sparks your interest, just run it by your coordinator and you should be good to go. It is like experiencing C-SPAN in real life, which is about as cool as it gets for us political nerds.
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8) Understand that what happens in the office should stay in the office. You will be around some powerful people all day long and will likely hear some valuable information and congressional gossip. While it can be tempting to tell your fellow interns and social media followers everything, you will be a lot better off if you keep to yourself. As an intern, you are in no position to be gossiping or sharing information you hear in the office. Having loose lips will only get you into trouble in the long run.
9) Let your intern coordinator know your interests. If you are passionate about communications, you might be able to do media work with your office’s communications director. If you are into health care policy, you could possibly conduct research for the staffer that is in charge of health care. While these accommodations might not always be available, it never hurts to ask. This has the potential to make your internship more interesting and worthwhile.