Memo to fall interns: Your moment is here

Dear Intern:

I know what you’re going through.

Long before I became a congressman or an association chief executive, I was an unpaid employee in a congressional office trying to get my first break.

At the time (the 1960s), there were numerous student interns and unpaid volunteers and I was among them. I did it all: grabbed coffee, made copies, filed papers, opened mail, ran errands, took the congressman wherever he needed to go and answered plenty of phones.

Life was pretty tiring. I taught public school during the day in Maryland, and then would run up to Capitol Hill to work for free in the afternoons. Sometimes I thought I was crazy. But I had a goal and dream of working in politics. The drive kept me going, and I embarked on a successful career that I have loved.

I want you to know I have been in your place, because my hope for you is that you will seize this semester and use it every way you can to develop a career for yourself in public service or politics. Tempting as it is to experience Washington and not always stay on task when fun calls, my desire for you is that you will find a balance and work extra hard, while still enjoying yourself.

Whether you are interning in a House or Senate office or a K Street association like mine, this is your time to shine. Trust me on this: I am not the exception; I am the rule. There are many senior staff, and even current members, who started out as interns.

Also know this: Your ascent in the political world can happen quickly, which is why you have little time to waste. One of my chief lobbyists, who works with me at the Credit Union National Association, started on Capitol Hill as a parking attendant in the Rayburn House Office Building. Three years later, he was a chief of staff.

Legislative assistants, schedulers and even volunteer interns can learn the skills to move up. So how do you do it?

What are the ways to climb the ladder? The first key is to remember that on Capitol Hill or K Street, you can rise quickly if you are hard-working and ambitious yet respectful and forthright. Unlike the corporate world, where you often have to wait years for a promotion, all you may need are a few months of Hill experience to get the ball rolling.

This said, you must take the attitude that this semester and beyond, you are willing to do any kind of work to be a team player. Volunteer for assignments. Make every task important. If you are asked to make copies, be the best there is at making copies, and be patient. Lower your expectations and roll up your sleeves.

Having once been there, I know that on Mondays and Fridays in particular, it is tempting to come in late and leave early and spend more time enjoying the social side of Washington as opposed to its political side. Resist that temptation. Make it your business to come in early, stay late and offer to help on weekends. Build a contact file on everyone you meet — and I mean everyone — and follow up with a note or short e-mail.

Because the Hill is an ever-changing place, opportunities present themselves constantly. Even if you have just started interning, you probably have figured out that there is plenty of work to go around and not enough people to do it. Do the work well and efficiently, and you will get noticed. The hard work will help pave the way to a paid Hill or K Street position upon graduation.

Here’s one other piece of advice: Keep a level head and a sense of modesty. It is easy to think highly of yourself when you have suddenly gone from being a junior in college to someone who is getting an up-close and personal view of national and congressional affairs. Exercise restraint and professionalism when discussing your work. Do not try to outdo other interns who are sharing “war stories” about their offices. Confidentiality and loyalty are a must!

Hard work, the ability to listen and a great attitude will pay off. I promise. The sky is the limit, so get off the ground this fall.

Best wishes,

Dan Mica

Mica is president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-1989.