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Congressman Eric Swalwell on Landing a Congressional Internship and the Intern Experience

December 7, 2017

DUBLIN, CA–Our next article covering college internship opportunities looks at public service at Congressional Offices. We spoke with Congressman Eric Swalwell (Dublin High School Class of ’99) on the role internships have played in his career, and the opportunities available for college students in his office – locally and in Washington D.C. We also asked if Congressional interns can look forward to a future where more internships are paid.

DSC_7425 What role did internships play in your college experience?

Congressman Eric Swalwell: “When I was in college I tried to take as many internship opportunities as possible, looking for those experiences to guide me to or away from a career. My first internship was working on Capitol Hill and my next summer was spent with a think tank working on voting rights. In law school I worked at a law firm and I worked at the District Attorney’s Office. From all of those experiences I learned I didn’t necessarily want to work for a think tank or a law firm, but it was because I took a summer to have those experiences that I was able to rule in, and out, different career options.” What was your strategy for researching and selecting internship opportunities?

Congressman Swalwell: “I started very early, talking to advisor and mentors, and asked for help and advice. I still have in my Congressional Office today a thick folder of rejection letters as a humbling reminder of how wide a net you need to cast to land an internship or role. I encourage students to pursue a wide range of options and to start early, and then to narrow options as the summer approaches. It’s important to not hang your hopes on one opportunity because there many reasons an internship may not work out.” What roles are available for inters in your offices, locally in the Bay Area, and in Washington D.C.?

Congressman Swalwell: “We have three internship programs: one in our Washington D.C. office, one in our local office in Castro Valley and one in our campaign office. Each program works a little bit differently: in Washington D.C. you are at the center of gravity of our democracy and you get to see how events unfold, to observe hearings, answer constituent calls, assist with research on policy positions and lead tours. I tell our interns – whether they are in D.C. or back home to not be shy about what they are interested in, because we can’t read minds. If interns express their interests and the types of meetings they’d like to attend (by stalking our calendars), we can better address their interests.

“At home our interns get to see the work we do on behalf of constituents through outreach and community events. In both D.C. and at home interns will get a sense of who we represent and why we work so hard.” What do you look for when you are interviewing interns?

Congressman Swalwell: “The number one attribute that we look for is the desire to help people. We all show up at the office – from me, to my staff, to each intern – wanting to help people. Regardless of your educational experience or background we first want to know ‘do you want to help people?’, ‘why do you want to help people?’ and ‘what have you done before to help people?’. Experience or training in government or politics is also important but not necessarily required. We also want our interns and staff to reflect the diverse make-up of our community. We strive to have a diverse staff.” You’ve been outspoken about the challenges college students are facing in particular as it relates to student debt. Given that many government internships are unpaid what is your advice to students who worry they won’t have the financial means to take an unpaid internship?

Congressman Swalwell: “I do fear that Capitol Hill is prohibitive for interns who don’t come from backgrounds with a lot of means. We have had interns in our office who we’ve paid, on a case-by-case basis, in particular related to the workload (for example interns who are working more than half time). We are undergoing a study in our office on how we can pay interns in 2018. I’ve concluded that there has to be a way to pay interns, or give them a stipend, in order to avoid interns self-selecting out of government internships because they can’t afford the opportunity. I hope we have a paid program in 2018.

“We’ve been working with an organization, Pay Our Interns, who have moved me to think about this issue even more. For 2018 we’re looking at minimum hour and course study requirements to offer paid internships.” If you could pull out intern experiences that helped you decide your career path what were they and why?

Congressman Swalwell: “When I was a law clerk with the District Attorney’s Office I was able to try a misdemeanor jury trial. There couldn’t have been a better experience to know what it means to be a trial lawyer. That experience showed me that I should devote my time for the foreseeable future pursuing that path.

“My internship on Capitol Hill landed during 9/11. Seeing the work Republicans and Democrats did together during a very gridlocked and partisan time, to come together and work to protect the country, set in motion a commitment to serve.”


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