As the only member of my internship program from the Midwest, there was definitely a learning curve for me when it came to assimilating to the culture of Washington, D.C. From social customs to navigating the metro, it definitely took a little bit for me feel like less of a tourist and more of a (still kind of lost) local. I’ve compiled some of the most helpful things I’ve learned in hope of helping out future interns on Capitol Hill.
In no particular order:
1. Get a SmarTrip card for the metro – it’s refillable, kind of like a debit card. Not only do you save money in the end, but you won’t have the hassle of having to buy a new metro pass every single time you have to get on the train. You can also register your card on WMATA’s website, so if you lose your SmarTrip, you can get a new one with the same amount of fare on it as the card you lost. And oh yeah – walk on the left, stand on the right.
2. When purchasing work/business casual clothes, stay on the subdued side until you know your particular office’s policies. Some offices will let women wear sandals in the summer, while others will want you to keep your blazer on at all times when Congress is in session. It’s easier to spice up a muted outfit with accessories than it is to tone down a brightly colored or too-short ensemble.
3. In the same vein, be sure the shoes you wear to work are comfortable. You may feel okay in the heels you bought when you’re just wearing them around your apartment, but you will probably regret wearing shoes that are too tight when you have to give a tour of the Capitol and its labyrinth of tunnels.
4. Get to work early – my sweet spot was about 15 minutes early. This serves three purposes: your boss/supervisor will either be impressed or at least have no reason to be upset about timeliness, you have time to find your way around if you get lost (which I did pretty often), and you will also have time to grab breakfast in a café downstairs. To my Senate side folks – I highly recommend the chocolate cake donuts from Dirksen Café.
5. When it comes to lunch, food from the House/Senate dining services tend to be cheaper than what you would find at a regular restaurant in D.C. However, the costs can add up quickly. While lunch habits vary from office to office, never feel ashamed to bring your lunch from home – you’ll end up saving a lot of money.
6. Memorize the names and faces of the Members whose offices are also on your floor. You want to be able to greet them appropriately if you ever run into them in the hall, but also to make sure you don’t do anything embarrassing if you happen to see them – like literally run into them because you’re so engrossed in your phone.
7. You will receive an orange badge from the House or Senate ID office. This is your ID during your entire time on the hill – wear it at all times when you are in a House or Senate building, and especially in the Capitol. This badge will get you in practically anywhere you need to go during your work hours.
8. However – don’t wear your badge anywhere except the hill. There’s no easier way to spot a newbie, out-of-state intern than a bright orange badge around their neck on the metro, walking down the street, or even shopping after work. It does not make you look powerful – it makes you look like you don’t understand D.C. social norms.
9. A final point about badges – while this ID is very important, it does not make you more important than anybody else. Treat everyone you interact with on the hill with respect, from the people in your office to the maintenance workers.
10. When your supervisor or SA gives you a task to do, complete it in a timely manner and do so happily – no matter what it is. So much of the intern experience on the hill is to allow you to see what the inner workings of federal government are like – and some of those inner workings require papers to be copied, coffee to be made, or office supplies to be organized. Proving that you can do minor assignments well shows your boss that you can be trusted to work on larger projects. Nothing is beneath you.
11. Once you gain your supervisor’s trust and are tasked with larger assignments, be sure to ask questions about their expectations of the project. However, don’t run over and bug your SA with minutiae every five minutes. Write down a list of questions you may have, and try to come to your boss with possible solutions instead of just a myriad of problems.
12. Ask for feedback. Once you’re at a mid-point or longer way through your internship, it’s appropriate to politely ask your supervisor about how they think you’re doing, and if there are any changes they would like to see in your work. Nipping a potential problem in the bud now will make for happier bosses at the end of your time there.
13. Get at least seven hours of sleep every night. It may sound silly to be reminded of this, but your energy level can impact your entire day – from your work ethic to what you decide to eat for lunch. You will have to get up earlier than you think, as commuting can take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half, depending on where you live. During my internship, I would get up at 7:30 am at the latest, work for nine hours, and then not be home until almost 7 p.m. Because I didn’t get the hang of sleeping early during my first couple of weeks, I was an exhausted zombie for a while. Go to bed early, for your own sanity.
14. But on the other hand, take advantage of all the professional opportunities you have while working on the hill. There will be networking events, happy hours, or receptions almost every night – particularly on the House side. You can bet on making connections and probably getting free food and drinks. If you’ve graduated and are looking for a job, these are some of the most important events you can go to.
15. Also take advantage of the fun stuff there is to do in D.C. in general! There are beautiful monuments, museums about probably anything you can think of (all the Smithsonians are free!), tons of shopping, restaurants, and other activities. I lived in Foggy Bottom, which was very close to Georgetown and all the cute waterfront shops and restaurants, and I also got to ride bikes around the National Mall at night and take in the beautiful lit-up monuments around the Potomac. There is something cool to do in almost every neighborhood in D.C.
16. It’s hot out, and it’s probably going to rain. I have on more than one occasion referred to D.C. as a swamp town, and I’m not kidding. Humidity can get up to 80% during the summer months, meaning you will want a water bottle if you do any extended walking. Even if the forecast calls for sunny skies all day, keep an umbrella in your bag – the weather can change at the drop of a hat.
17. Also, if you’re a makeup-wearing human like me, you’re going to have to invest in a makeup setting spray if you want any hope of your freshly done face not melting off during your commute. My favorite is the Urban Decay brand, but Makeup For Ever‘s does the trick pretty well too.
18. Arguably the most important point: take care of yourself. Being thrown into this fast-paced environment can be stressful, scary, and overwhelming. If you’re the kind of person who needs a “happy place” wherever you are, like me, seek one out early on. My favorite is the back of the Lincoln Memorial. Do what you need to do in order to keep your mental health intact and to take care of your body too. Maybe you go for a run, or draw, or watch a favorite TV show to wind down. Whatever it is, check in with yourself at least once a day to gauge how you’re doing and what you need to do in order to be in your best mindset. If you suffer, your work will too.
19. Call home often – contrary to how some people may act, there is life outside of the hill. Your family wants to hear from you, and you may be more homesick than you think.
20. Work hard and play hard. Take pictures of everything, go to any event you feel up for, make new friends and connections, and say “yes” as often as you can. It’s going to be an amazing, exhausting, and short summer.