Getting Started in Politics, Advocacy, Government at the Local & National Levels

Local and state government offers students a great opportunity to see how agencies and legislation work on a smaller scale. For students passionate about their state or a particular issue, state politics is a wonderful place to get started! Below, I highlight a few ways to get involved in politics at the local (including at Wellesley!) and state level. 

In terms of gaining experience at the national level in US politics and policy, DC is the place to go. This document will address finding a range of internships in DC as well tips for networking. We’ll start with the three branches of government, briefly address other government agencies, move to international organizations, and finish with think tanks and nonprofits.  The point here is that while there are literally internships “on the Hill,” there are a vast number of ways to experience and learn about politics and policy in DC. For students interested in international affairs and government, intern and/or study abroad to demonstrate your regional expertise and intercultural communication and adaptability skills.   

This is just the starting point; when you’ve identified which internships you will apply for, make sure to read our other resources on Handshake on resumes and cover letters and meet with your College Career Mentor or Emma Cutrufello for advice.

I also recommend that you start to follow on social media the "policy wonks", government agencies, and nonprofit organizations in which you are interested. You'll begin to learn the who's who of the policy world, become familiar with the jargon, and may even learn about internship or job opportunities. 

Keep in mind that most government internships are unpaid and require US citizenship.  Nonprofits, NGOs, and the private sector (political risk or political consulting) are good options for international students interested in politics and advocacy. 

 

Local and State Government

Local and state politics offer a great way for students to engage with a community they care about and learn about the political system from the state perspective. I always encourage students to try both state and national politics to really understand the unique federal system we have in the United States. Because internships in DC at the national level are more competitive, starting out in state politics is a great resume builder. 

One of the best ways to start getting experience in politics and advocacy is participate in government or politics at Wellesley! Consider running for college government senate or an executive position. We also have the College Republicans and Democrats. There are a range of identity-based organizations that advocate for representative and relevant issues on campus. I recommend trying lots of different types of experiences so you start to understand what role is the best fit for you. Keep in mind that in politics there may be one person running for an elected office, but a huge team of people contributing and supporting in indispensible ways. 

Examples of internships at the state and local level: 

  • Legislative internships with state senators and representatives at the State House. Visit your state's legislative website to learn more about representatives and how to apply for internships. 
  • Governor's office
  • Mayor's office
  • Attorney General and District Attorney Offices
  • Court system
  • City- and state-level agencies such as transportation, environment, housing, planning, etc. To learn more about agencies in Massachusetts, click here.  
  • Campaigns for local and state government
  • Nonprofit or community organizations that work to get out the vote for a party
  • Strategy firms that provide campaign consulting for elections, like Liberty Square and Blue Lab Group here in Boston 
  • Volunteer to be an election monitor 

 

Federal Government in DC

Internships Literally on the Hill

Interning in the legislative branch is a great way to learn about the (slow) process of policymaking and the operations of a busy office. Internships with specific lawmakers typically require a strong connection to that individual's state or district. Internship with committees require a background in a specific policy area. Interns can expect to answer phones, greet visitors, compile press clippings, attend hearings and write summaries, research, read and annotate a lot of material, and do other administrative work. You’ll meet an army of other interns, but you can expect to work hard and in most cases, spend very little if any time with the Congressperson. The experience does give you a good taste of what entry-level legislative assistants do and the different career options.

The first place to look for positions is on the individual websites of your home lawmakers. If you are a senior and originally from another state but have demonstrated experience serving Massachusetts, you can consider lawmakers from both locations.

Jobs and internships at the Senate are also posted on the Senate Employment Bulletin. This is updated regularly and these positions go fast, so act early. These are posted on a rolling basis, and students interested in summer internships should start looking as early as January.

Jobs and internships at the House are also posted via a Bulletin, which you can subscribe to here. Again, these are posted on a rolling basis, and students interested in summer internships should start looking as early as January.
 

Internships at the White House

The Executive Branch offers a summer internship program in which interns submit a general application and state up to five different departments within the White House in which they would be interested in interning. A list of the departments is available here. This internship offers the opportunity to learn more about the inner working of the executive branch. Depending on the placement, students can be expected to do administrative work as well as research and writing.

No specific political party affiliation is required. Currently enrolled students and recent graduates (2 years) are eligible. Applications for the following summer open in November and are due in early January. The application can be found here. Students should tailor their application to the department that would be their first choice for an internship.
 

Internships at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court offers an internship program that is more diverse than the other two branches, in part because the Supreme Court doesn’t have the number of different departments as the White House or as many members as Congress. Internships at the Supreme Court are not just for students interested in law and are not related at all the case work. Rather, they are visitor and research focused. Internships are available with the Office of the COunselor to the CHief Justice, Office of the Curator, Public Information Office, and Office of the Clerk. More information about these placements is available here.

These internships are particularly good for first years and sophomores because they require only one year of academic study and JD students are not eligible. The curatorial internships are perfect students also interested in the arts. The Public Information internships give students a lot of public speaking experience. The deadline for summer applications is March 1.

 

Other Government Agencies

There are internship programs at the vast majority of government agencies. Most of these are posted in USAJOBS, the federal government jobs site. The best way to find these postings is to go to usajobs.gov, scroll down to “Explore Hiring Paths” and click on “Students and Recent Graduates.” You can read about the internship programs on that page, and if you want to start searching, scroll down to the bottom to “Begin your search” and click the blue button “search internship jobs.” Alternatively, from the USAJOBS.gov homepage, you can do a general search by typing “intern” and narrow the location to Washington, DC.

If you apply using USAJOBS, please read the Government and Introduction to USAJOBS resource as it will walk you through the application process.  
 

State Department

Information about internships at the State Department is available here. These internships are great for students with an interest in international relations and policy. Wellesley students have been very successful at securing internships at State. Internships are available at embassies, bureaus, and offices in DC and around the world. Students can expect to engage in writing and research, some administrative work, and often event preparation. Keep in mind that summer internship applications are due the previous September. Applications will be submitted through USAJOBS. Visit the resource on USA Jobs and the federal resume to get started. State also has a virtual internship program called the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS). "The Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) is an eight-month remote internship program for U.S. citizen students, college-level and above, who would like to make a real difference in the work of the U.S. government. Since 2009, thousands of eInterns have expanded the efforts of the U.S. government, working remotely from their school, dorm room, apartment, local library or coffee shop – wherever they happen to be! Virtual interns work only on unclassified projects. They report to their supervisors at the Department of State and other federal government agencies in the U.S. and around the world by email, phone, or video chat. VSFS is managed by the Office of eDiplomacy in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Information Resource Management. VSFS collaborates with federal agencies across government on this program." More information available here. The application period is annual during the month of July. Apply through USAJOBS. 

For seniors and alumnae, learn more about full-time consular, foreign service, and civil service jobs here. The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) is offered on three pre-selected weeks throughout the year, and advance preparation and registration is required. 
 

Intelligence

Intelligence services include the CIA, FBI, DIA, and NSA. A good blog on careers in intelligence can be found here. Intelligence agencies are looking for an interest in public service and security. Agencies serving American interests abroad, the CIA and DIA, are interested in students with language or regional expertise. All of these agencies value technical and data skills. 

Information about internships at the Central Intelligence Agency is available here. Keep in mind that intelligence internship applications are due a year in advance due to the security clearance process.

Information about internships with the FBI is available here. Students can intern at DC headquarters or offices around the US. These internships are less policy orientated than others listed above and can be a good fit for students interested in public service who have a technical expertise (i.e., data analysis, accounting, information technology, or language). Keep in mind that applications are due a year in advance due to the security clearance process.

 

International Organizations in DC

IOs offer students a look at the world of international law and cooperation. There a huge range of options and types of internships out there. These are open to US and international students.  For initial ideas, see below. These are opportunities in DC, but there many IOs headquartered around the world.

United Nations Internships for students interested in international diplomacy. Must be recent graduate. US based in NYC; some DC and other locations worldwide available.

WTO internships for students interested in trade policy. Must be recent graduate.

European Union internships at the EU in DC. Must be recent graduate and US citizen.  
 

Nonprofits (including nongovernmental think tanks) and Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) in DC

DC is home to the largest number of nonprofit organizations and NGOs of any place in the world. I lump these together because they are all nonprofits and tend to have a particular interest-area focus. I’ll term them as a group as nonprofits for simplicity. These are great place for students to gain internship experience if you have a strong area of interest or passion. Nonprofits are large and small and offer different types of experience. Think tanks focus on research and writing while nonprofits with a specific mission (e.g., healthcare, the environmental, poverty alleviation) may offer internship positions in development, outreach, and event planning in addition to research and writing.  

If you know your area of interest or an organization you want to work, go straight to their website to look for internships. If you aren’t sure where to start, a great place to look for internships at nonprofits is www.idealist.org. Narrow your search to internships and Washington, DC. Nonprofits and advocacy internships are typically administrative and research based, though you may have a chance to travel to the Hill to listen to hearings on a relevant issue. They are a good fit for a student passionate about a specific issue who is interested in researching, writing, and advocating for it, with the long view in mind.

Think tanks offer students a certain window into policymaking in DC. Think tank experts, usually individuals with years of government or international experience and a master’s or PhD degree, write policy reports and books, hold events on policy topics, and convene “thinkers” about policy areas. As an expert in a certain policy area, they may be called upon to testify to Congress. These publications and events are read and attended by policymakers in government and experts at other think tanks. The overall effect is a cross-DC dialogue about policy issues. Working at a think tank can feel like it has less of a tangible effect on policy because you aren’t directly involved in writing it, but the goal is to contribute to discussion and debate and hope that through effective communication and outreach, policymakers on the Hill and at agencies will hear your voice and consider your argument. Think tanks are therefore a good fit for students who enjoy the process of research, writing, and debate. 

Be aware that certain think tanks and nonprofits can have a particular political bent and you’ll need to do your due diligence researching them when you apply.  

Please visit the Think Tank resource for more information about think tanks and for lists of think tanks.
 

Networking in DC

I’ll finish this document with a few tips for networking in Washington, DC. For general advice, please see the networking resource page.

When I refer to networking, I basically mean any interaction that you have with another person that buildings a mutually beneficial relationship. In DC, the vast majority of people work in or with the federal government, so you’ll likely be “networking” any time you introduce yourself to someone at the gym or local bar. This makes networking easy and unintimidating because the first thing people ask in DC is, “what do you do?”

If you are someone who enjoys and meets new people easily, networking will be easy. Even if you are don’t like being in large groups, as an intern in DC, you’ll be meeting a lot of fellow interns at your organization and attending a lot of events. The setup is there for you, so your job is to challenge yourself to introduce yourself to a few people at each event and learn what they do. You’ll need a good system of keeping track of people (digital or pen & paper) so that you can maintain contact and follow up. In DC, people still use business cards. I recommend you print out some for yourself using card stock (this can be done at your local paper store) with your name, college, major, and contact information. Keep it simple and professional, but it’s very useful to have something to give people. If you’ve had a good conversation with someone, find them on LinkedIn and follow up in a few weeks to ask if they’d be interested in joining you for coffee.

Who you meet and know is incredibly important for learning about the vast array of career options in these fields, and learning about available opportunities. Many jobs in this community are never posted publicly, and there are also opportunities to “create” your own position.

There are two different types of networking experiences in DC, and people move in and out of them.

Firstly, if you work for a particular political party of politician, your network of people largely pulls from that party affiliation (though stepping outside of that circle sometimes is certainly a good idea). This means that the people you meet and the conversations you have are very political. Be prepared to talk passionately about topics, defend rigorously, and be careful not to get pulled in too deep (i.e., always be diplomatic). DC political networking circles are surprisingly small and what you say and what you do matters for your reputation and your career. In this work in particular, your network (i.e., the people you know) are critical in getting you your next job.

The other networking experience is more vague and less politically charged. Nonprofits tend to network with like nonprofits because you are attending the same events and the same briefings and applying for the same small number of jobs. For example, people working at conservation nonprofits get together for a networking happy hour. Think tankers attend other think tank events. There are even more formalized ways to network, such as getting involved in a professional association. If you are in DC and interested in international or foreign policy, I would recommend investigating Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, which a great group of like-minded young professionals who work across organizations and industries. In this world, positions are often posted on organization websites, but having a networking contact at an organization can give you a leg-up in getting an interview.

In general, growing a network in DC is critical to learning about opportunities and growing your reputation as an industry professional. Compared with other fields, networking while in DC is relatively easy because there are so many events that people in your field attend and an army of interns. Jobs and networking are competitive, but acting professionally and politely, rather than being the person who shouts the loudest, is generally the best way to network for success.

Use the Wellesley network. There are many alumnae working in DC who are an easy first step for connecting and learning about careers and opportunities. The best ways to find and connect with alumna is through The Hive and LinkedIn. Narrow your search to DC and specific industry areas.

Internships for Underrepresented Populations

Identity-based professional and student organizations often offer internship placement and support in DC. Below are several examples; please go to their websites for more information. Most deadlines are late fall. 



The Washington Leadership Program for students from the South Asian Community

https://www.thewlp.com/the-wlp-program

APAICS Summer Internship in DC for students from the Asian Pacific Community

http://apaics.org/summer-interns/

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Congressional Internship Program

https://chci.org/programs/congressional-internship-program/

Hispanic Association of College and Universities (HACU) Internship Program

https://www.hacu.net/hacu/hnip.asp

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Internship

https://www.cbcfinc.org/internships/

Victory Institute Fellowship (LGBTQ Congressional Internship)

https://victoryinstitute.org/programs/victory-congressional-internship/

National Organization for Women Internship

https://now.org/job/internships/

Portugeuse-American Leadership Council

https://www.palcus.org/internship

Udall Congresional Internship for Native American Students

https://www.udall.gov/ourprograms/internship/internship.aspx

International Leadership Foundation (for Asian Pacific Students)

http://www.ilfnational.org/fellowship-application/

Council of Korean Americans

http://councilka.org/

Arab American Institute

http://www.aaiusa.org/internships

College to Congress for low-income students

https://www.collegetocongress.org/