WASHINGTON -- Holton Westbrook remembered being at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year, watching as members of Congress and their suited-up staffers hurried between offices, meetings and the session. All around him, important work was happening.
Westbrook, the incoming Student Government Association president at Texas Tech University, was in Washington, D.C., as part of Big 12 on the Hill, an opportunity for student leaders in the Big 12 Conference to lobby Congress on behalf of their conference.
That experience was why he applied to one of Texas Tech's congressional internship programs and how a few months later he was in D.C., wearing a suit and walking from office to meeting, working for the government.
“It was really cool to see that side of it,” he said. “Now it's cool to be that person on the other side, being able to see what all these leaders do around the Hill and for this country.”
Westbrook, a senior agricultural economics major from Stephenville, is one of 23 Texas Tech students spending some or all of their summer in the nation's capital, interning for members of Congress, House committees and federal departments. The internship is an opportunity for students of all majors to experience legislative life, network with the nation's leaders and explore different options for careers and post-college life.
It's an eye-opening experience for the students in more ways than one.
“I know being from Houston and being from Texas, it's very different from being in Washington, D.C.,” said Nora Jan, a senior with three majors and plans to go to law school.” The culture, the environment, the people are all entirely different.”
The congressional internship program
Texas Tech has parallel internship programs administered by the president's office and the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR). The programs are virtually the same, particularly when students get to Washington, but CASNR's program is open only to its students, while the Government & Public Service Internship Program is open to graduate and undergraduate students in any program. Students in both programs get a stipend to help pay for their time in D.C.
Missi Barton, the internship coordinator for Texas Tech's Government & Public Service Internship Program, said the president's office sends about 16 students each semester, while CASNR sends three to four students each semester. Both programs started in the late 1990s.
“The program allows students to be introduced into the world of public service and contribute to the policy-making process,” Barton said.
Students applying through the president's office submit an application, then go through an interview, said Amber Yanez, a senior marketing major and incoming SGA vice president.
“I was super nervous before going in, and I walked out and thought, ‘Oh, that was the best interview I've ever had,'” she said.
CASNR's process is more involved, though it still shouldn't be a deterrent to potential applicants, Westbrook said. He attended an information session in fall 2014 and heard from previous interns about the experience, then filled out an application that asked questions about leadership skills, academics accomplishments and community service. He also wrote an essay discussing current events.
From there, he had an interview with several faculty members who cull the applicants down to about 10. Each member of that group has a second interview with members of the agricultural industry in Texas, who asked him questions like who his congressional representative is, who the agriculture commissioner is, why he applied and what he hoped to gain in Washington.
“That's a little bit more intimidating,” Westbrook admitted.
Once students are selected, the Office of the President or CASNR works with internship coordinators in Congress to place students in different offices. They look at students' interests, personalities, plans, hometowns and more when considering where to place students.
Most go to Texas offices, though not all. Denzel Maxwell, who is working on a master's of public administration, worked with a representative from New Jersey. Westbrook interned for the House Committee on Agriculture, allowing him to work not only with Midland Rep. Mike Conaway, who is the chairman, but other representatives as well.
The internship experience
Interns answer phones, give tours, run errands, do research, write documents and go to briefings. When Yanez walked into her first briefing, she immediately recognized the room from watching C-SPAN.
“You're in the same room with them and they're doing something so great and you're witnessing it, not just on TV but in person,” Yanez said. “That was a great experience for me.”
Ashley Melero, a senior social work and sociology major, was surprised when, during her first week in Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's office, she was told to do research and given assignments such as writing a floor statement.
“I couldn't even have imagined it would be the way it is,” Melero said. “I've been pleasantly surprised at the work we've been allowed to do in this office.”
Jan, who is majoring in English, political science and sociology, came to Texas Tech in part because of the internship program. This was her second summer in D.C.; in 2014 she interned at a firm that lobbied Congress on medical health and geriatrics. She attended many of the same types of meetings, just as a different kind of participant.
“I'm still toying around with which I like better, but it's nice to see that both sides do significant amounts of work,” she said.
Westbrook, in a committee office, works with both the legislative and business side of Congress. He gets coffee, sorts newspapers and works with legislative assistants on the daily grind, but he also works with lobbyists who come in and prepares for meetings between representatives and different organizations.
He's also had a myriad of unexpected moments just by avoiding the same elevator two mornings in a row or eating at a cafeteria in a building. Taking different hallways allowed him to meet new people and fully explore Capitol Hill.
“I worked out one day in a gym and thought about going home to eat a sandwich, but I decided to go out and eat, and Michelle Obama was actually at the restaurant I went to,” Westbrook said.
Life in the Tech House and D.C.
The Tech House is a red brick, square building that sits off a street a block south of Capitol Hill. It's unassuming, with only a Double T on a doorway indicating ownership. The house has 16 bedrooms on two floors; each floor has a kitchen, living room, laundry room and two bathrooms.
It's much like living in a residence hall, several interns said. They all hang out together in the living room when they're home and have worked out an informal schedule for the bathrooms in the morning.
The best aspect of the Tech House, though, is its location. Other university houses require close to an hour commute each way.
“Being able to walk to work in 10 minutes, it's awesome,” said Evonne Heredia, a sociology and criminology double major from Hobbs, New Mexico.
Of course, they're not spending a lot of time at the house. The interns are at work all day and in the evenings explore Washington, D.C., and go to events planned through the congressional internship programs. The receptions introduce the students not only to each other but also to the sights, experiences and opportunities D.C. has to offer, Heredia said.
Plus, they're living in a vibrant city. The interns have explored historical sites, gone to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, strolled around the National Mall and played tour guide when their families came to visit.
Jan especially appreciated the unique gastronomical experiences D.C. had to offer during Truckeroo, a 12-hour food truck extravaganza.
“A roommate and I went and binge-ate like 18 different types of food,” Jan said.
Yanez might come back to D.C., though not in the same capacity. She wants to fundraise for campaigns, either at a district or a national level.
Jan is going to law school to become a corporate lawyer.
“D.C. could be in my future,” she said. “It's certainly not one of the projected cities, but being here is changing my mind.”
Westbrook plans to get a law degree and a master's degree in agricultural economics, a dual degree program Texas Tech offers. After that, his goal is to work for an agriculture lobbying firm, although he wouldn't say no to nonprofit work.
“I'd like to help be the voice for agriculture,” he said. “That's a passion of mine.”
Whether she makes it back in the future, Yanez said her summer in D.C. was well worth the heat, humidity and wearing a suit every day.
“You think you have an idea before you come here what D.C.'s going to be about, and you come here and it's just so much more,” she said. “Everyone here is on a mission to do something every day. That's my favorite part about D.C. Everyone's doing something good every day.”
An alumnus who went from intern to staffer talks about his experiences.
|Devin DeLapp||Stinnett||Rep. Mac Thornberry|
|Denzel Maxwell||Tulsa, OK||Rep. Donald Cross|
|Cole McNiel||Mansfield||Rep. Randy Neugebauer|
|Ashley Melero||El Paso||Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee|
|Sarah Muncy||Carrollton||Rep. Filemon Vela|
|Holton Westbrook||Stephenville||House Committee on Agriculture|
|Amber Yanez||Houston||Rep. Joe Barton|
|Melanie Yeisley||Trophy Club||Rep. Michael Burgess|
|Alyssa York||Frisco||Rep. Jeb Hensarling|
|Molly Craft||Lubbock||Rep. Henry Cuellar|
|Michael Kmetz||Commerce||Rep. Pete Olson|
|Dawn Stecklein||Flower Mound||Rep. Michael McCaul|
|Darby Sullivan||Canyon||Rep. Mac Thornberry|
|Danielle Villarreal||Leander||Rep. Sam Johnson|
|Ryley Bennett||Corrales, NM||Rep. John Carter|
|Amanda Cook||Cypress||Department of Commerce|
|Evonne Heredia||Hobbs, NM||Sen. Ted Cruz|
|Nora Jan||Houston||Rep. Beto O'Rourke|
|Garrett Lam||Burkburnett||Rep. Mike Conaway|
|Taylor Shackelford||Prosper||Sen. John Cornyn|
|Lindsey Sweetgall||Canyon||Rep. Gene Green|
|Taylor Turner||Lubbock||Rep. Randy Neugebauer|
|Jordan Vogel||Canyon||Rep. Blake Farenthold
and House Ag Committee