A Lesson through Aggravation
July 1, 2006
For the typical political science student wavering on the decision to enter politics, a good remedy is a summer spent in Washington D.C. The result will probably be either a deep love or an extreme dislike for politics. This past summer that I spent interning on Capitol Hill was marked by unhappiness. I dreaded getting up bright and early each day to catch the Orange Line to the Capitol South stop. I feared what new error I would be blamed for that day in the office. I deeply regretted the time I was wasting at an unpaid internship while living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. It was only toward the very end of my time there that I began to look past these complaints and realize my internship was an invaluable experience, which provided me with lessons that I wouldn’t learn anywhere else.
At first I was awed by the beauty of simply living in the nation’s capital, finding diverse culture and history around every corner. Going to work every morning on Capitol Hill amazed me and inspired me to put my utmost effort into every task I was given, even something as mundane as making coffee (which I did a lot). Living there provided a strange emotional paradox of simultaneously feeling the wonder of being at the center of worldwide events and also being lost amidst the whirlwind of that activity. My third day at work was the day of that infamous flyover of DC by the pilot instructor. While I was herded down the stairway, the other new intern and I clinging to each other for dear life, I felt a tremendous rush of fear but also awe at what was happening and the fact that I was a part of it.
Additionally, I was aware of a very subtle yet present feeling of us and them, in reference to those who lived in Washington and those that visited Washington. Regretfully, I even caught myself feeling that same emotion when I was insulted by a man at the Smithsonian Metro Stop who was trying to offer me a map of the Mall because he thought I was a tourist. Everyone who lives there develops a type of "tourist radar" which allows you to identify a "foreigner" with a cursory glance on the Metro. Generally children, t-shirts, or maps gave away their presence. This awareness haunted my conscience the entire time I was there because I was ashamed for even feeling it. I felt oppressed by this mentality, not empowered by it as some were.
Unfortunately, during my time there, I was constantly disheartened by my job. The pressure of working on Capitol Hill is not understated. My character was constantly challenged when I found myself blamed for errors that were beyond my control. I was once pulled aside for "a talk" after I had gotten lost in the Capitol Building with a tour, even though I had never been properly trained by my boss. The other intern and I were chastised for letting a call get through to voicemail even though no one else in the office heard it ring either. In respect to incidents like these, I quickly discovered that others were usually not interested in hearing my defense, only in finding a scapegoat. Much of my struggle was caused by my failure to perceive this difference between the voiced expectations of my work and the actual ones held by my colleagues.
I was absolutely miserable until I began to adapt. I gradually adopted an attitude that made it possible for me to get up each day and walk into work with a positive mindset and determination. The hardest but most necessary lesson for me to learn was that not all criticism was a personal attack even if it felt like it. Somehow my colleagues fed off the pressure and expected the same from me. Once I finally realized this, I began to see the potential for growth from my internship. My skin was being toughened each day, making me stronger. My confidence in myself and my abilities grew as a result of being constantly tested.
What I took away from my summer was unlike what anyone had told me. While I didn’t know exactly what to expect beforehand, I had a vague anticipation of representing the interests of a group of people and also getting an insider’s view of our national government. Technically I did both of those things, but they didn’t affect me in the way I thought they would. I was dismayed at the rude distance between the constituents and their representatives. It is glossed over, but I saw it everyday whenever someone laughed at a rambling constituent phone call. There was a self-righteous indignation of "How dare they interrupt our work day with their petty concerns?" I found myself falling into the same trap on occasion, although I fought against it as best I could.
So far I have drawn a fairly cynical picture of my internship, but I also had some very enjoyable experiences that helped me to work past my aggravation and be able to appreciate what I was getting in return. Giving Capitol tours was one of the most rewarding tasks I did. Occasionally I would even get a grateful constituent who would write me a letter of thanks. I have one hanging in my room right now written by two little girls, Heaton and Reagan, and their godmother. I enjoyed giving tours so much because it was a chance for me to really connect with our visitors, and for that hour and a half, I was in charge of my time. I had no one telling me what to do or blaming me for something that had gone wrong. It was my opportunity to really enjoy the history and culture of Washington, D.C. and help others to appreciate it too. I always tried to end my tours out on the west steps of the Capitol with the breath-taking view down the Mall to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, so that I could see the amazement and awe on the face of everyone in my group. Their appreciation and gratitude made up for all of the frustration that I sometimes felt and reminded me of who I was really working for in that office.
I emerged from Capitol Hill as a weathered soldier of the political arena. I began that summer unsure of which direction I wanted to take my career. By the end, I was certain it wasn’t going to be into politics. I loved the people, my friends, fellow interns, and the grateful constituents, but I knew I could not dedicate myself to a career of politicking. My appreciation grew for other areas in political science like policy work and international relations. The internship gave me this new focus, a pleasant side effect I was not anticipating, and I emerged from D.C. a tougher, smarter, and more focused individual than when I first, so innocently, arrived.
Heather Imboden is a junior from Dublin, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and International Studies