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Trying to change Congress, starting with the lowest rung: interns

Interns are key cogs in the machinery of Washington. About 8,000 arrive in the city every year. On Capitol Hill, particularly during the summer, they can be found doing everything from answering constituent calls and opening mail to conducting policy research. Most congressional staffers get their start as interns.

For years, however, these posts were largely out of reach to all but the wealthy and well-connected. The vast majority of internships here are unpaid, in a city where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $1,570.

The organization College to Congress is trying to change that. The nonprofit, now in its fourth year, helps low-income students secure congressional internships and covers their housing, food, clothing, and transportation needs.

The goal is to open up the Hill’s staffing pipeline to more than just those who can afford to work for free, says Audrey Henson, who started the program.

She hopes to address one of Congress’ most long-standing problems: a lack of diversity – not only in race and gender, but also in socioeconomic status. “We’re not just trying to change [a] student’s life,” she says. “We’re trying to change Congress.”

Washington

Ana Aldazabal nearly missed the vote.

She’d rushed to the gallery in the House of Representatives just as members were preparing to vote on HR 6, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019. She watched as the bill – which would provide a path to citizenship for young immigrants like her – passed, 237-187.

For Ms. Aldazabal, it was a powerful moment. Not only because she’d waited almost her entire life for a bill like this, but also because she watched it all happen from a seat on the inside, as an intern for California Rep. Gil Cisneros. 

“I was like, ‘Wow. I’m really here, as an undocumented immigrant in the most powerful city in the world, walking through the hallways that presidents have walked through,’” she recalls from a coffee shop at Union Station about a week later.

A Capitol Hill internship once seemed an improbable dream to Ms. Aldazabal, who grew up in La Habra, California. She had the qualifications – she’d been on the dean’s honor list and president of the university student union when she graduated from Cal State Fullerton in May.

But she had assumed there was no way she could afford a summer in Washington. Most Hill internships are unpaid, and interns here often work part-time jobs or take out loans to make ends meet. Her family came to the United States from Peru without immigration documents, so Ms. Aldazabal didn’t have those options.

The only reason she made it to Washington, she says, is because of College to Congress, a nonprofit that helps low-income students secure internships on the Hill. The program covers their food, housing, clothing, and transportation needs, and offers leadership and networking training throughout the summer.

The goal is to open up the Hill’s staffing pipeline to more than just those who can afford to work for free, says Audrey Henson, who started the program in 2016. Raised by a single mother in St. Petersburg, Florida, Ms. Henson lived off loans when she first came to Washington to intern on the Hill. She understands the challenge of being asked to split a bill with co-workers when you ordered only tap water on purpose, or trying to look professional every day when you own just one dress.

More broadly, Ms. Henson hopes to address one of Congress’ most long-standing problems: a lack of diversity – not just in race and gender, she says, but also in socioeconomic status.

“We’re not just trying to change [a] student’s life,” she says. “We’re trying to change Congress.”

Key cogs in the D.C. machinery

Interns are key cogs in the machinery of Washington. About 8,000 of them arrive in the city every year, according to the Congressional Management Foundation. On Capitol Hill, they’re tasked with everything from answering constituent calls and opening mail to conducting policy research. Most congressional staffers get their start as interns, and many more who end up working in nonprofits or lobbying firms also put in time on the Hill.

A 2017 survey by the advocacy group Pay Our Interns found that about 90% of House interns served unpaid. At the same time, the cost of living in Washington has soared. As of June, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is about $1,570. Add to that the cost of meals, the Metro, and networking over drinks and coffee – a very real part of what it takes to succeed – and it’s no wonder students like Ms. Aldazabal see internships as out of reach.

“My family is not in the financial position to just be like, ‘Here’s $5,000 to go and train in Congress,’” she says.

College to Congress fills the gap with an investment of about $10,000 in each of its students over the course of a summer. The funding covers airfare to and from Washington, a room in an apartment near the Capitol, three meals a day, a clothing allowance, a Metro card, and, as of this year, $300 in Lyft credits for the 2 1/2 months the interns are in town.

When Jay Cho first heard about the program – particularly the clothing stipend – he found himself thinking about his old suit.

Mr. Cho, who spent more than four years as a congressional staffer before going corporate in 2018, still keeps as a memento the one polyester suit he wore to his Hill internships when he was in college. His parents didn’t have the money to get him through four years at American University, so he lived on a mix of grants, loans, and the wages he earned working at the pizzeria beside campus. Now a member of College to Congress’ corporate leadership council, Mr. Cho says he often walked the 6 miles from school to Capitol Hill to save on bus and Metro fare. His suit, stapled together in places to keep it from falling apart, would set off the metal detectors at the Cannon House Office Building.

“A lot of people [on the Hill] do not have any idea what it’s like not to have any money, what it’s like to see that $6 balance in your bank account,” says Mr. Cho in a phone interview. “These are the people doing the work to create programs that help low-income students and families. When these discussions are happening, I want there to be someone in the room who knows what it’s like.”

Intern boot camp

Once they land in D.C., students are whisked into an intensive weekend boot camp, where they learn both the nitty-gritty of congressional office work and the soft skills – like networking and time management – that are vital to success in Washington. 

The program is explicitly bipartisan. Ms. Henson’s own politics lean Republican – she interned for former Rep. Joe Barton of Texas and current Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida before becoming a staffer for Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio. And College to Congress interns are chosen with an eye to diversity in ideology and experience, in addition to race, culture, and gender. The program says Ms. Aldazabal, who landed a spot at a freshman Democrat’s office, is its first undocumented intern. But her peers in the program include a pair of military veterans (working for Republican offices), several first-generation college students (Democratic interns), and a survivor of a school shooting (also Republican).  

Each student is paired with a Hill staffer from the opposite party who serves as a mentor throughout the summer.

“Everything on Capitol Hill is built around relationships,” Ms. Henson says. “If you only meet your opponent on the House floor when you’re yelling at each other … then you’re never having that chance to build camaraderie, to build friendship, to look for areas to work together.”

Still, there’s only so much one nonprofit, even combined with others, can do. The reality is that Washington is expensive, and the cost of living remains a major barrier for many talented young people across the country with dreams of working in public service.

Lately, Congress – in the face of much lobbying and shaming – has begun to recognize that fact. Last year, it approved $14 million in internship funding that became available to member offices in March. Each House office now has $20,000 to spend on interns, while Senate office funding is broken down according to state size.

For Ms. Aldazabal, her immigration status means she can’t go on to work in government, but she’s looking at nonprofits, maybe law school – somewhere she can combine her newfound knowledge of the legislative system with her interest in immigration policy.

Right now, she’s just thankful for the opportunity College to Congress is providing.

“It’s one thing to ask for diversity in Congress, but it’s another to actually do the work,” says Ms. Aldazabal. “The program is … revolutionary.”  

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