Senior Emily Martinez-Villalobos is a strong believer in keeping a cool head and working collaboratively. Those may seem like rare traits in Washington, D.C., these days, but Martinez-Villalobos found they served her well during her summer internship in the office of U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas of California.Martinez-Villalobos was one of 30 students selected from colleges and universities across the country to participate in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s internship program. The political science major said working on Capitol Hill was a special experience for her.
“My family immigrated from Mexico, we grew up poor, I’m a first-generation college student,” she said. “So just being in D.C. was really emotional. I’d never thought that I would be there. Stepping into the halls of Congress, being in the Rotunda, just seeing that and thinking, wow, I’m here.”
Every Monday, the interns took part in morning seminars that examined different aspects of the legislative and political process. Afternoons were devoted to team-building activities or hearing from diverse players in the political system – lobbyists, lawyers, government officials. “It was a good perspective on the many opportunities the world has to offer you,” Martinez-Villalobos says.
During the rest of the week, Martinez-Villalobos conducted research on policy issues and prepared briefings and memos for Vargas’ staff. A lot of the work focused on immigration and foreign affairs, both of which are areas of interest for Martinez-Villalobos, an aspiring lawyer. She appreciated that she was trusted with substantive projects to work on, and was impressed by Vargas’ kindness to the staff.
“He would sit down with us and have one-on-one conversations,” she says. “It was a really humanizing experience, because sometimes you see people and they don’t talk to you. But he really did a good job of making us feel welcome in the office and seeing us as human beings.”
A high point of the experience was getting to write a bill for her final project. Martinez-Villalobos’s proposed legislation focused on allowing immigrants to come to the U.S. to work in specific high-needs sectors of the economy, such as construction.
Bipartisanship was part of the culture of Vargas’ office, Martinez-Villalobos says. Staff members looked for areas that both parties could agree on. “It was nice working with both sides and just bringing it to the middle, because the only way to pass bills is if you’re working together,” she says.
Still, she says, the level of polarization she witnessed was disappointing. “One of the main reasons we’re not passing bills is because people are unwilling to work with each other,” Martinez-Villalobos says. “You have to take a step back and be realistic, and understand it’s not going to be ‘my way,’ it’s never going to be ‘my way.’ Because if it’s really a democracy, it’s about everyone coming together and deciding in the middle.”
Martinez-Villalobos is now in the midst of applying for law school, and hopes to study immigration law. Far from making her cynical about the political system, her experiences have made her interested in going into politics one day.
She says her internship also made her appreciate how government works, which in turn inspired personal pride.
“I feel more patriotic, because it showed me that the American dream is real,” she said. “I am the product of my parents’ dreams.”