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Honing the Skills of the Hill

by Chris Kaergard |
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The inaugural class of the Michel-LaHood Summer Congressional Internship Program rubs elbows with America’s decision-makers in D.C.

For politicos, it may have been the most consequential week this year in Congress: the final negotiations and vote on the debt ceiling increase.

For a trio of Bradley University students, it was also their first week on the job as congressional interns on Capitol Hill.

Bradley University congressional interns Sarah Sweeney, Luke Borri and Lavannya Deolalikar
Bradley University congressional interns Sarah Sweeney, Luke Borri and Lavannya Deolalikar
Sarah Sweeney visits the U.S. Supreme Court
Sarah Sweeney visits the U.S. Supreme Court

“It was really great starting in a time when Congress was really just going at full swing with the debt ceiling,” said Lavannya Deolalikar, who is interning with U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly and, like her colleagues, received accelerated training. “Interns needed to know what to do because Congress was doing so many important things.

“It’s only gotten better from there.”

Deolalikar and fellow seniors Sarah Sweeney and Luke Borri are the inaugural class of the Michel-LaHood Summer Congressional Internship Program, a new partnership between Bradley University and the Dirksen Congressional Center. It fully funds three students a year — travel to and from Washington, D.C., lodging near the Capitol, money for food, Metro passes and other expenses — at a cost of $7,000 apiece for the two-month experience.

Internships in Congress aren’t meant to be coffee-fetching, hold-my-jacket positions. Indeed, interns are at the front line in most congressional offices, answering constituent phone calls, greeting visitors and providing Capitol Hill tours.

But these interns have truly been in the thick of it, responding to letters and emails from constituents, writing recommendations on whether proposed legislation fits in with a congressperson’s priorities and merits a co-sponsorship, even sitting in on committee hearings.

“We get the opportunity to see them in full action and to watch these live debates,” said Sweeney, who is interning with U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood.

How the program started

When he retired from Congress, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood established an endowment at the Dirksen Center to provide annual scholarships at Bradley for students studying in fields related to public service. One of the recent recipients had separately completed a summer internship in a congressional office, and in talking about her experiences with members of the LaHood scholarship committee, she discussed the challenges of affording a summer in D.C. for students who don’t come from means.

That sparked discussions between Ray LaHood, Bradley and the Dirksen Center about creating a program with his endowment to ensure students from all economic backgrounds would have a chance to participate in internships. Darin LaHood, Kelly and newly elected Rep. Eric Sorensen quickly agreed to host interns for the first summer.

“I know how crucial it is for the next generation of public servants to reflect a diverse array of talents and backgrounds,” Ray LaHood said. “Removing any financial roadblocks to this experience ensures that our government, especially in ‘the people’s House,’ can draw from a deeper talent pool.”

The program is named for LaHood and his mentor, former U.S. Rep. Bob Michel. The three hosting members of Congress all have connections to Bradley and to Peoria. LaHood and Sorensen represent the Peoria area and are both the children of BU alums. Kelly is herself an alumna and former trustee, and she launched her career working at Peoria not-for-profits.

“Congressional internships can be transformational experiences” said Tiffany White, executive director of the Dirksen Center. “Whether students go on to careers in public service, business, not-for-profits or anything else, they’re honing skills like active, empathetic listening and problem-solving, all while helping people.”

What they’re learning

One of the first things the interns had emphasized was a simple, foundational truth about learning: Ask questions.

“They (congressional staff) love when we ask questions, and love to engage with us,” Sweeney said.

That’s especially important when preparing briefing material for meetings on a tight deadline.

“Everything we do is just so important in its own way, and that overall is just its own learning opportunity,” Deolalikar said. “We get to figure out what it means to be a part of an office and function alongside others who help a congressperson.”

The interns are broadening their own perspectives, as well. Each of them graduated high school in the Chicago suburbs before coming to Bradley. In Borri’s case, he wasn’t familiar with agriculture-related issues. But Sorensen’s office covers a substantial swath of farmland.

“When you’re working in an office that has constituents out in the country, you have to teach yourself what it means to be a farmer, and put yourself in that mindset and frame your responses (to letters and emails) in a way that is both empathetic to their situation and able to give them the help they need,” he said.

In addition to their daily responsibilities, interns also are able to research an issue and propose a piece of legislation for their office to introduce.

“Considering people typically think of an intern as the lowest rung on the ladder,  that was definitely something I would not have expected to do at all,” Deolalikar said. “We’re treated almost as normal staffers on the Hill.”

A chance to network

There are opportunities for networking, too. Even something as simple as a Capitol Hill tour for visiting constituents can offer that.

“It connects us to people from all different places and regions,” Sweeney said. “I personally don’t think that’s networking I would’ve had without this internship.”

Other networking has included brown-bag lunches with office staff, one-on-one discussions about law school and policy-work positions with office mentors, and receptions with female chiefs of staff to a bipartisan group of members of Congress. Sometimes it can even be chance encounters in the hallway.

“As a college student — especially as a college student — you don’t just expect to see your elected officials to be out and about like normal people,” Deolalikar said. “Even if you run into someone in the hallway, it’s not like they’re up on a pedestal. They’ll stop and talk to you and ask you about your day.”

Signs of bipartisanship

Students also are having some assumptions challenged as they take part in the process and see the emphasis on governing and getting things accomplished.

“Every day it’s about trying to find a bipartisan, middle ground,” Borri said. “I get to learn to work with people who I don’t exactly agree with on everything.”

That spirit holds true on the floor of the House and in committee hearings, too. We may hear daily about the polarization in Washington, but it isn’t always a partisan slug-fest.

“It’s not just one person coming after the other,” Deolalikar said. “Each side is having a very substantive discussion about how they can achieve what is, essentially, a common goal. That is definitely amazing to see.”

“From what I’ve witnessed (in committee hearings), they really do try to meet in a bipartisan way, and they really do try … to find a middle ground,” Sweeney added. “It really does boost your faith.”

An event to raise funds to support the program in perpetuity will be held Aug. 19, 2023 at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. More information is available at www.dirksencenter.org.

Chris Kaergard

Chris Kaergard

is communications manager and associate historian at Pekin’s Dirksen Congressional Center. He is a former newspaper reporter and editor

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