What do you wish you knew as a hopeful DC intern? On Friday, Sept. 17, the alumnae panel at NeW’s Intern Summit answered this question to a crowded room at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, DC.
Fifty DC interns gathered to network and hear from the panel, which included three former NeW chapter leaders who work on Capitol Hill: Charlotte Townsend, College of Charleston graduate and press assistant and legislative correspondent for Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.); Mara Mellstrom, Boston University graduate and current chief of staff for Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.); and Samara Brown, University of Virginia graduate and legislative aide for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Day-to-Day Life on the Hill
The panelists agreed the most important thing for attendees to understand was the different functions their positions. Often the picture students have in their head of working on Capitol Hill is very different from their actual day-to-day duties. As chief of staff, Mellstrom told the women that there was really no typical day for her, traveling frequently between DC and Charleston. She explained her role as “number one troubleshooter” and that she was there to “help everyone work hard and succeed.”
As press assistant and legislative correspondent, Townsend’s responsibilities have included drafting press releases as well as securing exclusives with news outlets like Fox News and the Washington Examiner. Townsend described how difficult it was to transition from writing long academic papers in college to crafting short tweets and long-form letters to constituents as a press assistant. She describes her role as “a good marriage between legislative and communications” because she works to ensure the congressman’s messaging remains consistent.
One aspect of Capitol Hill that many students also may not realize is the difference between working on the House side and the Senate side. Brown, who has worked on both, joked about the rivalries between the House and Senate. To give students a little more perspective on the differences, she explained that while she found the House to be very exciting with its emotional floor debates, working in the Senate has given her more opportunities to get her work into bills that pass.
The panelists also described their proudest moments. Mellstrom’s included managing Mace’s congressional campaign as well as the more sobering memory of the Jan. 6 riot just 36 hours into her team’s first term in Congress. The day stands out in her memory because of the way the staff handled the pressure and how she was able to support her colleagues while keeping everyone as safe as possible.
Townsend recalled when she had to step up and replace the office communications director for two months as a brand-new staffer. At 22 years old, it was an enormous compliment to be trusted with that level of responsibility and an even bigger accomplishment that she was able to do it successfully.
For Brown, the COVID-19 pandemic showed her what she was truly capable of. Coming into the office in 2019 to handle healthcare, education, small business, and labor issues, she had no way of knowing that she was about to deal with the most controversial and critical policy areas for the foreseeable future. However, she and her team rose to the challenge and pulled together to handle the issues effectively.
The panelists described the skills needed in the professional world, specifically highlighting openness, flexibility, confidence, humility, and gratitude. For positions on the Hill in particular, Townsend encouraged the women to hone their elevator pitch, as that was what helped her to get her current position. In her experience with hiring interns, she has seen that many hopeful applicants don’t understand that this pitch should be 90 seconds and focus on describing “who you are, what your values are, and what skills you’ll bring to the congressman’s office.”
Townsend also advised the women to “be the utility player” on the team, willing to step in, take over, and fill in gaps. In Hill offices, she told them, there is always work to do, and even something as small as replacing the paper in the copier will help build good rapport in the office.
Brown urged the women to not be afraid to cold call or email. After being encouraged to cold email and network outside her office, the first person she had coffee with ended up hiring her. She also reminded the women to always thank those who help them, and to pay that kindness forward.
Finally, Mellstrom and Townsend both emphasized the importance of prioritizing those close to them.
“Guard your personal life,” Mellstrom advised. “There’s a lot of pressure to run yourself into the ground on the Hill. There’s no substitute for spending enough time with your family, spouse, or significant other.”
We are proud of these alumnae!
This blog post was written by Catherine Olohan, NeW Campus Program Coordinator.