When I was getting ready to take that flight to D.C., I had no idea what to expect. Even with the meetings, past newsletters, and the meet and greet where I spoke to previous interns, I still had no idea what I was getting myself into. So, although you will not know what to expect either, I will attempt to soften the blow. Out of everything, I wish most that I had known what to expect in the office on that first day. Every office is different but I think many, on the House side anyway, will provide you with a similar first day.
First, I was very overdressed. I was decked out in a suit and heels when I greeted my intern coordinator, who was wearing Sperry’s and cut off jeans. When we are out of session, the dress code is much more relaxed. However, I don’t regret wearing that at all. I’d much rather be overdressed than under dressed and I think you should definitely dress the part on the first day, whether Congress is in session or not. Just be prepared for a little bit of shock when you’re the only one wearing business attire.
Second, that first day was much slower than I imagined it would be. NOTE: Sometimes, there really is absolutely nothing for you to do. We had been told to always ask what we can do to help and to ask anyone if they needed anything. Well, I’d go easy on that the first day, especially if we are out of session. I was trying to be a good intern that day so I was buzzing around the office asking everyone if there was anything I could do or if there was anything they needed. They would say “No, sorry, things are really slow when we aren’t in session.” I’d head back to my desk and sit for a few minutes, then the fear of being a bad intern would creep up on me and I’d go ask someone else. I realized after that first day that there really wasn’t anything for me to do that day and that by asking so often, I had actually become annoying instead of helpful. The next day, when my office really did need me, they asked me to write letters and do research without me having to ask. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask if there’s anything you can do on that first day, but I think you should be patient and expect things to be pretty slow, especially if Congress is out of session. They will ask for your help when they need you. Ask if you can help of course, but don’t let the worry of being a bad intern turn you into the annoying intern.
Third, I wish I had known about how lunch works. I always worry about lunch because I don’t want to be the girl sitting in the bathroom stall crying over a stale sandwich on the first day. I’ll just tell you about my first day so you can learn from my mistakes: I packed a sandwich before I left for work, only a sandwich since I’m a college student and don’t know how to grocery shop, and hoped for the best. At about noon, the ferocious stomach rumblings began. I winced and tried to quiet them by squeezing my arms against my stomach. This went on for another hour or so until my staff assistant finally asked me if I was hungry. I said, “oh a little bit” which she knew wasn’t true since she had been listening to my stomach shriek for the past hour. I wasn’t waiting for her to tell me I could eat lunch, I just didn’t know if everyone else ate in the office and when. She showed me a small table in the office she said I could eat at if I didn’t want to eat at my desk. I sat at the table and awkwardly ate my unsatisfying sandwich as the rest of the office was coming and going. This was strike one. I learned that they were all going to get food from the cafeteria to bring back and eat at their desks. After I finished my tiny sandwich, I was thirsty and still hungry. I decided to go down to the Rayburn cafeteria I had heard about. Strike two. Rayburn’s cafeteria is only open when we are in session so it was closed that day. I resorted to the vending machines where I would use my credit card. Strike three. Rayburn’s vending machines don’t have the new swipe slot for cards so I had to go to the ATM and spend $3 to get $3 for chips and a diet coke.
I only tell you these stories of my first day so that you will know what to expect on your own fist day. You aren’t asked to eat with the congressman and you aren’t asked to write a speech. Instead, you may end up like me, staring at the ceiling without a clue of what to do next. Enjoy it. Knowing exactly what to do all the time is boring.