If you think Capitol Hill has been desolate this summer, try talking to the interns who never made it there.
“It was kind of a bummer,” Matthew Mittelstaedt says. He’s an economics major at the University of Dayton with an eye on law school. For the rising senior, a summer in Washington looked like a bouncy springboard into his post-grad career.
That was until mid-March, when things changed. His school’s program, DC Flyers, got grounded due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
He thought about forging ahead on his own, without all the perks of his program, like housing and a stipend of up to $3,000 for basic needs (including dry cleaning). But ultimately the choice wasn’t his to make. A couple months later, before he could pack his bags, he got the final word from the office of Rob Portman, his would-be boss. The Republican senator will have an intern-free summer, “out of concern for the health and safety of staff and interns,” communications director Emily Benavides later explained in an email to Heard on the Hill.
Now Mittelstaedt, like pretty much everyone right now, is letting go of the summer he planned and coming to terms with another one. For the 21-year-old, that means “odd jobs” — campaign work for another Ohio lawmaker (Rep. Steve Chabot), “handy work” and an “unprecedented” amount of time with family.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, things feel weirdly quiet without the crowds of interns that usually arrive in the warmer months, flooding the short-term housing market and filling the halls of the Senate and House office buildings that surround the Capitol. You can still see a smattering of intern badges, but most of the pipelines that typically bring young people to the Hill have temporarily shut down. Among university-sponsored programs, DC Flyers was hardly alone in calling off the semester. After cutting their spring internships short, the popular University of California Washington Program (UCDC) nixed the summer too.
“While you may not be able to climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we plan to offer online programming for those who choose to participate,” UCDC executive director Helen Shapiro said in April.
When faced with the decision to either cancel or go virtual, the answer isn’t easy. The whole point of an internship, from the intern’s perspective, is to meet people, network furiously and leave a strong impression, all within the space of a few short months.
“One of the biggest challenges is that they don’t have a normal experience working with our staff in person,” says Ananda Bhatia. She’s a legislative correspondent for Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, and this summer she’s leading another project: virtual internships.
She can use Slack well enough to assign work, but interns don’t have many chances to show their personalities. So her interns started a new tradition: optional PowerPoint presentations on a passion of their choice. (Topics so far have included “How to Make a Lobster Roll” and “An Extensive Examination of Contemporary Canine Fashion.”)
“We’ve tried really hard to make them feel a part of the team,” Bhatia says.
Other congressional offices, like that of Democratic Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, have gone virtual too. “It’s a little more challenging,” says communications director Andrew Donnelly. “All of us would like to be able to meet these folks face to face.”
Interns who have stayed on the Hill through more than one cycle saw networking grind to a halt. “I definitely did feel the impact,” says an intern who’s been with a Senate committee since last August and has been teleworking during the pandemic. (He asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly about his workplace.) “Before the lockdown, I was very active in grabbing coffees and having informational interviews,” he says. “I feel out of touch from that environment.”
The transition has been painful as internships get dragged into the virtual world. Yet there could be an upside in the long run. Scraping together the money for a semester in the District, where housing costs are notoriously expensive, has traditionally been a barrier to entry for interns, one advocates have cited as they push for diversity.
More lawmakers are paying their interns in recent years, thanks in part to dedicated funding now available to House and Senate offices. Yet when it comes to hard numbers, the ceiling is essentially the floor. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a champion of intern pay, offers $15/hour — a rate that’s considered especially high for interns on the Hill, but that as of July will match minimum wage in the District. Affording travel and housing remains hard.
Virtual internships are a different story. One group has already seen a spike in participation after expanding their offerings. College to Congress, a nonprofit whose mission is to “level the playing field” for congressional interns, according to their website, recently launched C2C-University, a self-paced online training program that helps students and graduates secure and “succeed” at their Hill internships through matching students with mentors, building up their resumes and providing them with virtual career opportunities.
“With our old model, we planned on serving 10 students this summer,” founder Audrey Henson says. “Now we already have over 400 active students on our platform and are anticipating over 1,000 by the end of the year.”
Still, the upheaval of the current moment may work to cancel out any unexpected benefits of going virtual. As the next internship cycle approaches, some on the Hill are asking applicants to keep their options open for the fall. Take this recent listing from the House Judiciary Democrats, who set a submission deadline of mid-June: “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Committee is currently planning on having a remote internship for the Fall of 2020. However, public health developments could necessitate the return of an in-person internship in Washington, D.C. Therefore, we ask that all applicants be available to intern in Washington, D.C. if it is safe to do so.”
With that kind of uncertainty, intern hopefuls have to imagine two places at once: wherever they are, and wherever they aren’t.