Being introduced as “the Harvard intern” on the first day of my internship at the Massachusetts State House this past summer was more of a concern for me than I think the woman doing the introductions realized. I felt that the label implied that I had qualified for the position simply because I go to Harvard, which is actually far from the truth: I had qualified merely because I am a constituent of my Massachusetts state representative.
I took the internship with my state representative because I am interested in education policy, and I wanted to learn more about the inner workings of government. In that, I was quite successful (perhaps a little too successful): among the most interesting lessons I took away from my two-and-a-half-month internship is that Massachusetts House members spend formal sessions making deals and catching up with each other, interrupting their social conversations only when they have to vote. I also learned that 75% of the Massachusetts legislature is Roman Catholic (although many of the Catholic legislators will go to mass outside their congressional districts for fear of being criticized by constituents). I especially learned that in an election year, it’s a better move to take $350 million out of the state’s rainy day fund than to put anything that even resembles a new tax into the budget, and that it’s often far more difficult to bring a bill to vote than it is to garner the support required for it to pass.
My time at the State House also gave me some much-needed direct work with formal politics. It taught me how to become an expert on policies I’d never heard of, how to take good notes at briefings, how to write letters to constituents, and how to be very comfortable walking in heels. It taught me how to be a good intern: to know when it’s okay to interrupt a conversation and when it isn’t, to act willing to do even the most mundane tasks, to answer phones and write memos. Overall, the internship was intellectually exciting. I left work each day feeling like I’d learned a lot and was ready to learn more. I gained perspective (although I didn’t become any less liberal), and I was much more than “the Harvard intern” when I walked out of the office on my last day.
There is only one crucial skill that I wish my internship had taught me more about, and that is the ability to be a creative and influential policymaker. Even though I don’t intend to run for office, I want to develop an ability to reach across the aisle, an idea of how to negotiate compromises among different interest groups, and a better understanding of how to convince legislators to prioritize issues that might not fall into their committees or their areas of expertise. My internship taught me how to follow, but it didn’t teach me how to lead–maybe such lessons are for grad school.