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I Was an Unpaid Intern on Capitol Hill. Here’s Why I’m Thankful for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Paying Hers

A former unpaid congressional intern responds to Representative Ocasio-Cortez's decision to pay her congressional interns.

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Courtesy of Hassan Shata / EyeEm.
Courtesy of Hassan Shata / EyeEm.

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Dear Representative Ocasio-Cortez,

Thank you. Thank you for advocating for the payment of congressional interns. As a former intern in the House of Representatives, I have experienced and witnessed the challenges of being an unpaid government worker.

Last spring I had the opportunity to intern in a Representative’s office for several weeks. During that time, my fellow interns and I worked long hours for free. We spent our time answering phone calls from both respectful and disgruntled constituents, attending legislation briefings, and providing tours of the Capitol Building to constituents. Each and every one of our jobs contributed significantly to the effectiveness and efficiency of the office. Yet not a single intern was paid for our time, effort, or skill.

During my time as an intern, I worked alongside three other young adults, two of whom, Chris and James, were full-time students attending Georgetown University. Both Chris and James made it very clear that they were only able to be unpaid interns because they were students. Through their university tuition, their housing and food were already paid for, so they had the financial freedom to pursue a part-time unpaid internship. However, they did lament about balancing their academics with the internship. Attending college while interning was very difficult for them.

My third colleague, Jacob, had recently graduated from college with a degree in political science. Jacob was the only full-time intern in the office. He lived with his parents on the outskirts of D.C. and rode the Metro to and from work every day. I remember asking Jacob how he was managing to work a full-time job with zero financial incentive. He simply reminded me that as a college graduate, he was living at home, eating with his family, and working odd jobs on the weekends for some quick cash. Due to this, Jacob expressed little interest in continuing his internship much longer.

While I was an unpaid intern, I was fortunate to have the support of my high school and my family. I was given several weeks off of classes in order to seek out a congressional internship, so balancing academics and time on the Hill was not a problem. My parents financially supported my living and food requirements — both of which, however, were incredibly expensive in D.C. In fact, while searching for living accommodations, it was hard to find housing under $1,000 per month. I managed to rent a single bedroom in D.C. for $800 per month. All of these factors make justifying an unpaid internship incredibly difficult. Most interns are young adults who could never afford basic living expenses in D.C. on their own, so they turn to their families for support. Even then, very few families can afford to accommodate an unpaid internship. These challenges inevitably shrink the pool of viable applicants for unpaid labor. Hence, most congressional interns come from fairly affluent and well-educated backgrounds.

By paying interns, Congress will have a more diverse workforce which will, hopefully, lead to a more just law-making system. Outspoken advocates such as you, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, are one of the reasons the House will allocate $8.8 million towards paying hard working interns in 2019. This advancement in financial equity will help build a stronger and more diverse Congress to serve our country.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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