The Power of Internships

Although it cannot be said enough to young people in school (high school and college), INTERNSHIPS ARE VERY IMPORTANT!

Internships are usually the first stepping stone for leading a successful career, typically in the field that you are interested in working in. I’m a 19-year-old and I have already seen the power of internships in my life, and many of my friends who are now closer to their dreams because they started early. Many times the questions to young people are: What’s your plan? What do you want to do for a living? Now, what’s your back up plan? I believe we should flip it and instead come to our young people, as early as middle school (and in some cases earlier) saying, “Hey, here are a few options of what you are capable of doing. These are careers, these are occupations, this is what they do everyday. Now, here’s what they did to get there, how much they make, and advice for getting there.” That’s mentoring. (That’s how we shift our focus in our school from taking tests to actually preparing young people for life beyond graduation… sounds awfully familiar to the platform of a young man who ran for School Board in Washington, DC… take note).

I say all that to say, internships have power. I got my very first internship in high school with (at the time) Councilmember Jim Graham. He was a friend of my grandparents and one day he and his dog Guapo stopped by my grandparents house and gave my sister and I tickets to the Circus that was in town. That was many years before my internship, however at the time I knew I had a passion for my community and when you’re young you believe you can and should do anything (footloose). I was a Junior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts when that memory of getting those tickets from Councilmember Graham came back to my mind. (Here’s where my story got kinda personal)… I did not APPLY for an internship at the Wilson Building, I used this incredible tool called the internet to find the email address to my local Elected Official, sent him a direct email, CC’ed his Chief of Staff (Calvin Woodland), and weeks later I started my first day on the job in the Wilson Building. In my email I simply said, My name is Tony, I’m a resident of Ward 1, and I am interested in an internship opportunity in this office (of course, with a few more words) I believe it was a day later I got a reply that said we like your initiative, come in and let’s talk. THAT, my friend, is the power of being your own best advocate. Create your own opportunities, remember that you have not because you ask not, or as my dad used to tell me, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”

Photo of Councilmember Jim Graham and dog Guapo (Image by Washington Blade)

I remember the very first day, it was almost unbelievable. Too bad I was there so of course I believed it. Jim Graham was a character, and I knew that from our few brief moments together before I started the internship. I walked in his office, every corner was filled with STUFF (pictures, plaques, awards, shovels, everything, YOU NAME IT!) I was shocked, I wouldn’t say it was cluttered, rather organized chaos. I was greeted by Jeanne who worked at the front desk, and she had the warmest spirit and is still the sweetest lady that I know (she greets me with a warm smile and tight hug every time I see her). It was Calvin Woodland who gave me the biggest office greeting, told me what I would be doing throughout my internship in the office and then directed me to Jackie Reyes who is so INCREDIBLE (but that is another story for another time — I need a little bit more time to fully tell you why Jackie Reyes is one of DC’s most prized gems). Everyone in the office was warm and welcomed me and a few other interns with open arms.

Of the duties that we would have as interns, one was to organize a Youth Mock Hearing, it was a vision of Councilmember Graham’s that turned into a tradition for years to come. That year, I served as the Chairman for the Mock Hearing. All of the interns worked together to do the research, develop a witness list, questions, we prepared, practiced, created opening and closing statements, and practiced some more. By the time it was all over we hosted a full Mock Hearing, and immersed ourselves in the Legislative Process of the District of Columbia.

My internship was especially interesting because I started just a little after Graham had loss his bid for reelection and would be ending his final term after serving nearly 16 years on the Council. Yes, in 16 years he had accomplished a lot and collected a lot. One of my responsibilities as an intern was the help catalog all of the items in his files and office to prepare for transition. YES, many things that had been in his office untouched for the last 16 years. One of the most memorable moments with Councilmember Graham was a day that he and I sat in his office going through many of the items. I was amazed at how I could point to a picture on his wall and he could effortlessly give me the history of it, when he got it, why it was special to him. The same was true for nearly ALL of the items in his office. He shared with me countless memories he had. It was one on one. He asked me questions about my life, and offered advice, made jokes and laughed with me. He is an incredible man with a warm spirit that anyone could tell was genuine. I can still hear him calling my name, “TONY!” “Yes, Councilmember…”, I’d answer. “Do you mind taking Guapo and Mad Max for a walk?” I smiled, because that too was a fun part of my day. He was the only councilmember I knew that brought his dogs to work everyday. I leashed them, walked out the office door and out of the front door of the Wilson Building, because that’s all part of the internship.

If internships give your nothing else, they give you resources and relationships for the future. My very first internship gave me relationships that I am sure will last beyond the office, particularly in the DC Government… the people I met were working on improving the quality of life for residents of the District of Columbia. Because that is a passion of mine, I continue to work with and run into these incredible people all over the city. Calvin Woodland continues to advocate, and recently saw him at a Forum in Ward 8. Jeanne now works in the Mayor’s office and her warm smile and hugs are still infectious. Jackie Reyes now serves as the Director of the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs (and I’ve been honored to help her organize even more Mock Hearings to engage young people in the legislative process).

My first internship sparked a fire, it showed me one of the infinite possibilities of what I could do. We need to continue to encourage young people to seek out and create opportunities for internships. These resources and relationships will last you a lifetime — internships are just that powerful.

Tony Donaldson, Jr. (@TJDonaldsonDC)

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