What It's Like To Be A First-Generation College Student Interning On Capitol Hill

Photo: Courtesy of College to Congress.
Living in D.C. is expensive, and almost all Capitol Hill internships are unpaid. So congressional internships have traditionally been reserved for the privileged and well-connected. But organizations like College to Congress are changing that by providing low-income students with housing, transportation, networking opportunities, and even stipends for a professional wardrobe. In this series, we profile young women seeking careers in politics who may not have parents footing their bills, but do have plenty of drive to succeed on the Hill.
Name: Rosario Duran
Age: 21
School and year: Senior at the University of South Florida, studying political science and international relations
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This summer, she interned in the office of: Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Democrat from Florida's 7th District
Tell us a little bit about your background.
"I grew up in Miami, FL. My dad is from Mexico and my mom is from Ecuador. I have two older sisters, so I was the baby of the family. Although I was born in the U.S., both of my parents are immigrants who struggled with English and my sisters and I always helped them translate. My parents weren't super-involved in politics; they were focused on making ends meet because we are a low-income household. My dad is a construction worker. In December, I will be the first to graduate college in my immediate family.
"I became interested in politics to better understand all the things my parents didn't understand; what they were afraid of. My freshman year of high school, my mom was deported. She had tried to get documentation for years, but wasn't able to. She's still in Ecuador now, and I go visit her on breaks. This is how I got into immigration reform and decided I want to work to help immigrants."
Why did you choose to intern for Rep. Stephanie Murphy?
"Rep. Murphy herself is an immigrant [from Vietnam], and she's young and not from a conventional political background — her whole story was really inspirational for me. During my internship, I learned a lot of the ins and outs of Congress, how things are done on the Hill, and I've been better able to understand the legislative process. The Hill is so interesting, it's kind of like a little city in itself. As interns, we give Capitol tours when constituents come to the office, answer phones and letters, do administrative duties, help handle casework, and meet with constituents."
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How has College to Congress helped you?
"My advisor told me about this program. At first, I found it too good to be true! They pay for everything: housing, food, even dry-cleaning bills for your office clothes. I had always wanted to intern on Capitol Hill, but it was inaccessible for me as someone from a low-income household. College to Congress was able to make it a reality for me. The program is amazing! It's opening doors for students who couldn't otherwise get here.
"My family is always super-excited and proud of me. When I was little, I said I wanted to be the President of the United States, so they're super-dramatic about it — it's a really big deal for them that I'm able to work for Congress. For my parents, it's unbelievable — it's like the American Dream."
What has living in D.C. been like for you?
"You learn so much about the history of the U.S. just being there. Any given moment, you're just walking down the street and you see the Supreme Court. I mean, there's a Magna Carta copy in the Capitol building. In Miami, there's not as much of that, it's a younger city.
"You also tend to get involved in conversations with people across the aisle. So that has been a really eye-opening experience, to be able to find common ground with others. We need bipartisanship and compromise, and we need to understand the other side. The media image of D.C. is that everyone is polar opposites, but through conversations I've had I've found that your views can be different than what's portrayed in the media. Republicans don't necessarily hate immigrants; they want secure borders, and both sides want their country to be safe."
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What kinds of things did you do outside of your internship?
"College to Congress placed us together in housing, a total of eight girls in one rowhouse. On the weekends, we explored and went to different museums, like the Holocaust Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery of Art, just enjoying each other's company and relaxing."
What's the hardest thing about living in D.C. as a lower-income student?
"How I was raised is very frugal, so most of my favorite things to do are free. I eat lunch on the grass in parks, I walk around. Going out to eat is expensive — more so than in Tampa, where I go to school — so it's made budgeting more important for me, to make sure I'm not overspending."
Has the privilege of some of the interns around you affected you?
"Of course I have noticed that I have a different background than most of the interns in my office. But even though we come from different paths, they have all led us to D.C. and we have similar goals in terms of what we want to learn and do on the Hill. All the interns in my office get along really well and hang out. Our backgrounds are different, but I don't think it's created any kinds of barriers to us being friends and getting along."
What are your plans for the future?
"Immigration is my number-one issue area and what I want to work on for the rest of my life. I'm also interested in criminal-justice reform and education. My dream job after graduating is at a nonprofit that deals with immigration. I would like to start with direct services, then work my way up to do policy and advocacy work. My goal is to help immigrants reach the resources they need."
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
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