“I’m getting paid in experience.”
As an intern on Capitol Hill, I hear this line at least twice a day, nearly every day, from my fellow interns hoping to justify their time spent as an unpaid summer intern. Only about one in three interns on the Hill are paid, yet thousands of college students take on these unpaid positions every summer for the opportunities that come with the job.
Aside from having an excuse to live in Washington, D.C. for a couple months, Hill internships provide unparalleled opportunities for professional development and networking, as well as nearly unrestricted access to the Capitol building.
The Capitol Building with scaffolding as it undergoes extensive structural repairs.
The work is not always glamorous. I spent my first week almost exclusively reading and summarizing all 550 amendments the Senate proposed for the National Defense Authorization Act. Another day we spent hours crisscrossing the Senate buildings seeking signatures on a letter written by the Senator. My intern duties may be tedious and time-consuming, but after talking to interns in other offices, my coworkers and I consider ourselves very lucky.
“You have to scrap for work,” an intern down the hall, in a much bigger office told me. Most offices on the Hill will over-staff during the summer, hoping to expose the political office environment to as many young constituents possible. This results in an abundance of interns in high ranking offices or the offices of highly populated states, with sometimes as many as 20 hidden away in a back room taking turns answering the phones.
Just a few of the hundreds of NRA leaflets received in senators’ offices. Each of these letters must be catalogued by interns.
Coming from a sparsely populated state and working for a junior senator, we’re regularly tasked with work that is clearly beyond our non-existent pay grade. This backstage role in our federal government, combined with the chance to mingle with influential leaders of our country, makes the job more than worth it. I have been asked to attend meetings and provide notes on the proceedings for the Senator and his staff, and I have had many opportunities to shadow at meetings with officials in the Defense Department, the EPA, and more. Attending these meetings brings the legislative process to life. Among my favorites was an Armed Services committee hearing for the confirmation of a new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Goldfein, where I was allowed to sit behind the dais.
Thousands of people pass through the Capitol Visitors Center, or CVC, every day. However, my coworker and I prefer to avoid the crowds. With the florescent orange badge that marks us as interns, but also as members of the staff, we are given more room to explore. In the short weeks that we’ve been here, we have seen the real crypt, where Washington was supposed to be buried, walked down the same stairs the President elect walks, held an elevator for Senator Marco Rubio, walked the halls with Senator John McCain, and run errands across Capitol Hill.
The Capitol Visitors Center is so much more impressive after hours, when the absence of thousands of daily visitors makes it seem much bigger.
Capitol Hill is always busy during session, and skills are learned on the fly. Interns quickly learn that the marble bathtubs are hidden deep in the basement; that navigating miles of underground tunnels in heels seems daunting at first, but eventually becomes a breeze; that Senators walk fast regardless of age; and that the panic induced by attempting to leave the Senate Subway before a Senator chased by a camera crew runs in has yet to be matched.
Unfortunately, experiences aren’t a form of currency. DC is an expensive city. Rent is high, food is pricey, and the metro is a daily expense. The lucky third of interns who are paid just may break even if they budget carefully and don’t factor in the price of travel from their home states. Those being paid in experience are certainly paying for their experience, but for many, the experience is priceless.
One of the bathtubs in the basement of the Capitol!