Sean Rodriguez did much more than get a “peek behind closed doors” in the U.S. Capitol building while in Washington D.C. recently. He received the unique opportunity to sit in chairs that have been occupied by congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices and historic American figures.
For two and a half months, Rodriguez, a Master of Arts double major in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding/History and Political Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), lived and worked in the nation’s capital as a recipient of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy’s Congressional Internship.
After an intensive two weeks of preparation at the nonpartisan study center located on the CSU Monterey Bay campus, Rodriguez and 25 other interns selected from the CSU and three private California colleges set out for Washington, D.C. to work full-time in the congressional offices of the California delegation. Rodriguez served in the office of California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents the state’s 13th District.
“I was grateful to have access to areas closed off to the public while exploring sections of the U.S. Capitol,” said Rodriguez, a 22-year-old Anaheim resident. “We got to go on the House [of Representatives] floor and sit in the chairs that our congressional members sit in. It was inspiring to be in a room with so much rich history. I also enjoyed sitting in the same chairs Supreme Court Justices sit in during the State of the Union Address.”
Founded in 1997 by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, the Panetta Institute serves the entire 23-campus CSU system and provides students with a variety of educational opportunities in government, politics and public policy. Through its Congressional Internship Program students experience the legislative process firsthand.
Rodriguez applied for the Panetta Institute internship because he wanted to experience how Congress functions “from the inside,” and because he’s a history and “political junkie.”
“I remember being so excited when I got the voice-message from Keith Boyum [interim executive assistant to the President and emeritus professor of political science at CSU Fullerton]. It truly was one of my greatest accomplishments because this is what I want to do for a living,” said Rodriguez. “I got an in-depth look of how our democratic system works from the inside. Attending briefings and hearings was amazing because I had the opportunity to take notes for a congressional office and assist that member with policy-making.”
During the briefings and hearings, Rodriguez heard representatives of the White House, United Nations, State Department, and others discuss major domestic and international issues. Back in the office he performed such tasks as answering telephones, responding to constituents’ concerns, as well as higher level functions.
“I was assigned a variety of tasks in the office, from collecting signatures from Congressional members to deciphering legislation and determining whether or not we should support a bill,” said Rodriguez. “I was also asked to draft letters to both Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. This was really fun and one of my favorite tasks because I love Senator Elizabeth Warren and I felt honored to be able to draft a letter directed to her.”
Rodriguez also provided support regarding recent events that have made headlines around the world, such as the spread of Ebola, and he distributed a letter in Congress showing support for President Obama’s controversial selection of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.
One of “the most exciting” things that happened to Rodriguez during his Panetta internship was getting the rare opportunity to see an oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Seeing an oral argument in the Supreme Court was significant because filming the trials is prohibited,” said Rodriguez. “I actually got to see [most of] the justices speak. It was amazing to sit in the same room where so many historic cases have been made, such as Roe vs. Wade, Bush vs. Gore, and the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.”
Rodriguez also met some well-known and influential national leaders—such as former U.S Vice President Dan Quayle and NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks—and a celebrity or two.
“We were able to visit CIA Headquarters and attend the unveiling of [former CIA Director] Leon Panetta’s portrait, where I had a conversation with the head of science and technology of the CIA for a good 20 minutes,” he said. “I met Reverend Jesse Jackson and saw both Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reverend Al Sharpton on separate occasions. I got to meet Stephen Colbert during the filming of ‘Better Know a District’ [a recurring segment on ‘The Colbert Report’]. He was in a hurry, but I did give him a ‘Colbert Bump’ and got a selfie.”
To conclude his internship, Rodriguez must submit a 15- to 20-page journal regarding his work and experience working for Congresswoman Lee and a legislative research paper. He has chosen “Campaign Finance Reform” as his topic for the paper.
The Panetta internship had a profound effect on Rodriguez. He says he has become more “optimistic about how things work on Capitol Hill.” One day he hopes to become a state senator and/or a lobbyist to advocate for more funding for the sciences.
“There are very genuine members of Congress working to make this country a better place; those who don’t cater to the fringes of the ideological spectrum, but instead base their policy on evidence and sound information,” he said.