Prior to the start of my summer internship with the government affairs team at Student Veterans of America (SVA), I was nervous I may have made an unwise choice. After all, I had no experience working in a law firm, is that not what you are supposed to do with a law degree? However, as my summer came to an end, the nervousness was gone and I found it hard to believe just how valuable the experience had been. I’m sure I would have gained valuable lessons about the legal field had I gone the traditional route of clerking for a judge or working in a firm. Nevertheless, I am confident nowhere else could have provided me with the type of experience and knowledge I gained advocating on behalf of student veterans in our beloved Capital.
Ten years of being relocated to new locations and various positions, sometimes on a moment’s notice, has strengthened my ability to adapt to new environments and confidently contribute almost immediately. Working with SVA however did not require these skills, as the SVA office was deliberately designed to be an open, friendly and comfortable space. This atmosphere, coupled with a staff that is as welcoming as they are enthusiastic about helping veterans, made for a wonderful and collaborative work environment from day one.
Being comfortable at the office is a great perk, but the true prize was how much I enjoyed the work I was doing. As a student veteran who recently dealt with the tedious and complicated process of transitioning from the military, I was ecstatic to discover that the first topic I was to research was the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and ways it could be improved. I soon realized that every research assignment and writing topic would be just as intriguing and exciting. Perhaps it’s because the topics were so relevant to my personal experiences, or maybe I am just a nerd, who knows.
Events on the Hill
In addition to the research, another amazing aspect of my position included field trips to Capitol Hill with the rest of the government affairs intern team.
Affectionately known as the Augustine Army, after our fearless leader Lauren Augustine, SVA’s Vice President of Government Affairs. These field trips included numerous Senate and House Veteran Affairs Committee Hearings, staff meetings with congressional offices and the nomination hearing of President Trump’s Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Robert Wilkie. Talk about completely nerding out! These were procedures and hearings I have been reading about in history books for years and now they were taking place in front of my eyes, I was witnessing history. Some weeks the Augustine Army was so busy on the Hill that we barely stepped foot in the office. This may have been by design so the rest of office could complete their work without the constant intern chatter about yesterday’s meetings and tonight’s plans. I say that jokingly, but even if it were true I would not have complained. Participating in these meetings, soaking up the atmosphere and acting as if I belonged was incredible and difficult to measure.
I know what you are thinking, what a great experience! But that was not even the highlights of my summer. One of the events I attended on behalf of SVA was the unveiling of the Veteran’s Creed. Former Army Chief of Staff General George Casey collaborated with Georgetown’s Director of Veterans Initiatives Dr. Joel Kupersmith, along with multiple Veteran Service Organizations (VSO’s) to create a product that reflects the values service-members live by, even after they take off the uniform. Simply attending this event was a treat, I spoke with General Casey at length and met a new personal idol, Congressman Brian Mast from Florida’s 18th district. What made this particular event special however, was as the VSO leaders and other VIP’s lined up for a group photograph, General Casey asked for a representative from SVA to join in the photo. My new mentor and SVA legal and policy fellow Cassie Vangellow signaled for me to join the General and others. As I took my place next to Nebraska Congressman Don Bacon, I could feel myself gleaming with pride. How in the world did I get here? Was everyone else wondering what this long-haired, bearded hippie looking guy was doing up there? Despite my insecurities of belonging, there I was and there I will be anytime someone researches the unveiling of the Veteran’s Creed.
Events such as this were fairly common in DC, and as the summer progressed I continued to be presented with similar opportunities. Perhaps my favorite example of this was the night I attended the Seventh Annual Toast to Veterans and Those Who Serve in Congress, hosted by Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett. Lauren pulled a couple of strings and made it possible for me to lead the Pledge of Allegiance prior to the ceremony. A tad nervous I made it through without any verbal blunders, but as I stepped back from the podium I found myself in a predicament. I did my best to let the military color guard pass while allowing Major Garrett a clear path to the podium. Apparently, this looked as if I was looking for a place to sit down. Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security (among many other things), slid over and kindly offered a seat on the couch next to him…facing the crowd…where I was supposed to be. I was not sure, at the time or even still now, if people can say no to Tom Ridge, so I did what any patriot would do, I sat down and did my best to look like that was the plan all along. My wife, who was making friends in the crowd, knew this was not planned and made it pretty difficult to keep a straight face during the ordeal. This was especially true when Major Garrett turned to look for his seat during a break to find me sitting in it! Although I offered to move, he graciously refused and continued to stand for the remainder of the evening. So once again, there I sat, in a new environment and yet strangely comfortable.
Networking and What It Taught Me
Prior to this summer my knowledge of networking, and how important it can be was nearly non-existent. What I quickly realized about networking however, is that I am excellent at it. I have an innate ability to find common ground with nearly everyone I meet, either through shared experiences in our past or in shared interests of some kind. This ability, combined with my knack for story-telling, made networking an easy and enjoyable way to ensure my evenings were as productive as my day. The fact that most networking events serve free food and drinks did not hurt either.
While the primary goal at these networking events was career development, the true pleasure was meeting new and interesting people. I met people I ordinarily would never have spoken to including authors, SVA board members, nonprofit presidents, and so many individuals whose passion in life is helping people just like me succeed. Through my conversations with these remarkable individuals I was introduced to career options I never dreamed of, in addition to receiving firsthand experiences, valuable career advice and an expanded network of professionals.
A friend once told me that Washington DC is built on smart people finding ways to use their position and network to help others succeed, usually over drinks. I would expand this to say that not just D.C., but America is built on this cycle of good will. People generally enjoy helping others, all it takes is putting yourself in the right position. Working with SVA allowed me to put myself in that position this summer, and for that I am forever grateful.