Veronica Duron, 24, didn’t stop being a student when she graduated from the University of Texas in 2007. The San Antonio native spent a year working at a law firm and then came to the District as a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute fellow in 2008. Even as her fellowship turned into a full-time job on Capitol Hill in May, Duron said she’s still learning.
The fellowship was “really an opportunity that not many people get to experience, and I’m very grateful for that,— Duron said.
Duron is a more recent example of a long line of success stories offered up by alumni of the CHCI fellowships. Using private funding from grants and foundations, the institute has been bringing young Latino professionals to Capitol Hill and federal agencies since 1981.
And it’s a program that seems to work: A CHCI study released this week revealed that 78 percent of CHCI program alumni, including more than 1,000 interns and fellows, said “they would or may not be where they are today professionally without their CHCI experience,— and more than half of those surveyed “are currently employed in either the public or non-profit sectors.—
Esther Aguilera, president and CEO of the CHCI, said the program was born out of a desire to help Latinos get positions of influence around the District.
“It’s hard for young underprivileged students to make it out here and to get their foot in the door,— she said. The fellowships offer a total of 22 Latinos who have graduated recently from either college or graduate school a stipend and a support system while working in the District. Fellows are also required to attend Friday seminars that give them an understanding of how Washington works and to participate in a volunteer project.
Duron took full advantage of that opportunity. She started as a fellow in the office of Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas). Staff changes in Ortiz’s office gave her a chance to do a wide range of work for the Congressman in her nine months as a fellow.
“By the end of my fellowship I was pretty much doing all the education work in the office,— she said. In fact, Ortiz offered her a staff job after the fellowship. Now she handles some education and housing issues and oversees the front office and interns for Ortiz. She is among the 30 percent of CHCI alumni who ended up with jobs on the Hill following the program.
Stephen Perez, on the other hand, used the program as a platform not to launch a Hill career but to shift from health care to health care policy. Perez, a 28-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native, has a master’s degree in nursing from the University of California, San Francisco. He signed on as one of the smaller group of graduate fellows (their monthly stipend is higher) and through his fellowship worked for both the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Office of HIV/AIDS Policy in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Public Health and Science.
“I wasn’t sure going in from the clinical realm to the policy realm ... if any of the skills I had would translate or if I would be really lost,— he said. He credited CHCI mentors with encouraging him to volunteer at a clinic in the District to keep his skills up.
Ultimately, he found a place where his education and experience were useful. In the latter half of his fellowship he helped the Office of HIV/AIDS Policy translate its new Web site, AIDS.gov, from clinical language to language any reader can understand. Through that experience he met a variety of people working on AIDS-related issues at other federal agencies, as well. Since his fellowship ended in May, he has continued working for the agency as a consultant.
New fellows descended upon the District in August, and Karla Acevedo is looking forward to working with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as part of her fellowship. A 2008 graduate of Boston College, Acevedo, 23, spent her first year out of college teaching high school students about social responsibility as an employee of the Boston Center for Community and Justice.
“The type of work I’ve been doing has been around diversity, so I have focused on Latino leaders and I’m very interested to see what Latino leaders are doing at the national level,— she said.
In that sense, Acevedo has come full circle, from student to teacher to student again.