Mary Catherine Cook (Cassidy and Associates)

D.C. is often listed along with those other glamorous, high-profile destinations like London, New York, or Paris—and for a good reason. For a political science major, it’s kind of like Disney World because all of the characters and political dramas you read about in your textbooks are suddenly walking past you in the hallway of the Capitol Building, or eating a burger across from you at a restaurant. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, comparing, say, John Cornyn to a Disney prince, or Mike Allen to the genie in Aladdin, but you get the idea. D.C. is a truly amazing experience for a college intern.

That said, there are also some more difficult days. Sometimes the metro breaks down in a tunnel and you’re left standing REALLY close to complete strangers for twenty minutes. Sometimes you’re sent on an errand somewhere across the city and you get lost, returning to the office several hours later with blisters on your feet.

But thankfully, I received some pretty good advice from mentors and professors both prior to and during my internship in D.C. that encouraged me to really embrace the wealth of fun and captivating events in our nation’s capital, as well as some more ordinary ones.

In fact, I probably got one of the best pieces of advice this afternoon from one of the lobbyists at the firm where I’m interning. He came over to the group of intern desks in the office, smiled, and said, “Ok, y’all are working too hard, I have just a quick little story. Actually, I’m lying, it’s not going to be quick.”

For the next few minutes, he started telling us a story from his days working on Capitol Hill. He was first placed in a Congressman’s office as a temporary fellow when he was a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Marines, and ended up spending a few years in that office. He said that while he was there, a younger Marine called him up one day, and asked him for advice about getting a job on Capitol Hill.

He did his best to introduce this Marine to some people on the Hill who could give him some advice about which positions were open, but he couldn’t guarantee this young man a position. After doing all that he could for this Marine, he gave him this advice: even if you’re working in the mailroom (one of the lower entry level jobs in a Congressman’s office), make it worth your time. Show up before everyone else, and don’t leave until everyone else leaves. Dress as well as you can, smile frequently, and put all of your effort and concentration into sorting that mail excellently. And after a while, he said, people will notice that you’re working hard, and you’ll slowly ascend the ladder.

He told us that he didn’t hear from the young man for a few weeks, but then he got a call from the former Marine one day, and he said “Lieutenant, I got a job!”

The Lieutenant congratulated him and said, “Well, what job did you get?”

He replied “The mailroom!” The Lieutenant laughed and encouraged him to keep working hard and trust that he would see results someday. About four years later, the Lieutenant got a call again.

The young Marine said “Lieutenant, I got another job!”

The Lieutenant congratulated him and said, “That’s great, what job did you get this time?”

The young Marine said, “Well, the President of the United States just appointed me to be the head of the African Affairs division of the Department of Defense!”

In just five years, the lobbyist told us, this man had been promoted from the mailroom to Legislative Assistant, Legislative Correspondent, Legislative Director, Chief of Staff, and finally the DoD’s Deputy Secretary for African Affairs—all because he hadn’t scorned the menial work of sorting the mail.

I think this story best sums up all of the wonderful advice that I’ve received from mentors and supervisors over the course of these past few weeks: hit the ground running every day, and treat every task as if it were the most important job in D.C.

I’ve been fortunate to work on some really fascinating, substantive projects both on Capitol Hill and off, but even then, I am grateful for this reminder that every task I’m given is an opportunity to learn the value of good old hard work, and to start patiently ascending that ladder.

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