The Charlotte Sun
Author: Kayla Gleason, Staff Writer

Thomas Elliott is not sure if a career in politics is for him. But, at least one person thinks that is a possibility.

“I don’t think this will be the last you hear of Thomas Elliott,” said Audrey Henson, founder of College to Congress.

Elliott, a Charlotte County native, is in Washington, D.C., this summer working on an internship sponsored by College to Congress. It is an experience that has opened his eyes to all sorts of career possibilities.

The scholarship, which provides eligible low-income students with the opportunity to learn first-hand in Washington, D.C., helps cover the thousands of dollars in costs it takes to spend two months away from home in an unpaid position.

College to Congress estimates upward of $20,000 is spent on each student, with most of the funding coming from private foundations and large corporations that see the potential in each applicant.

“They set you up with everything you need to be successful because it allows you to make a good impression without stressing about money,” Elliott said. “Hearing about all the extra work people in our place had to put in without this — working nights just to cover basic expenses or taking out loans — I realize this opportunity is everything and I’m so thankful they accepted me and I get to be here.”

Henson is someone who knows how challenging it can be to afford a position like this.

“The whole point is to make sure our students don’t have the experience I had,” said Henson. “I bartended at night to help pay for everything and that means I missed out on lots of things from lecture series to making connections. I’m from St. Pete, we weren’t connected to politicians or anyone, and that made it hard for me to get here. We want to knock down that barrier.”

Inspired by her own background, Henson wanted to create a program for students who not only have ability but immense drive as well, students who want to dedicate their lives to making a difference.

As a child, Elliott attended Kingsway Elementary School and later graduated from Port Charlotte High School. He moved on to Texas A&M, where he majored in international studies and participated in a study abroad program in China. Elliott credits Charlotte County public school teachers and programs with developing his passion for politics and national and foreign affairs.

“Bob Johnson teaches a world history course at Port Charlotte that everyone wants to take and, from there, I got involved in Model U.N. We got the opportunity to travel across the country and it really opened my eyes to the world and people out there. I wanted to continue to learn more,” Elliott said.

College to Congress allows Elliot and many others like him to explore a traditionally elite and highly selective career path.

“We don’t take into account political stance or geography or anything. In doing so, we’ve curated a class as diverse as America,” Henson said.

Still a relatively new organization — their first class went to the Hill just last summer — they are already seeing exponential growth and hope to eventually sponsor interns in every congressional office.

For Elliott, his internship takes him to Texas U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul’s office and involves writing up foreign affairs briefs for the politician and his staff, making sure everyone is kept up-to-date.

“They’re stretched so thin already so we try to find news stories from around the world that they might not have time to find themselves,” Elliott said. “We have to dig up some of the more obscure or foreign news, Al Jazeera, BBC.”

The goal of the program is to ensure a wide range of students — anyone who wants it, not just who can afford it — get a hands-on experience in the world of politics.

“We don’t concentrate on just one area, just one type of person. We have students, like Thomas, from small towns and students from cities like Chicago and New York,” Henson said.

As the program grows, both Elliot and Henson hope word continues to get out to even the tiniest towns across the U.S.

“Port Charlotte is a prime area, lots of people I went to high school with would be eligible and have the work ethic to be successful,” Elliott said.

The program also is not exclusive to those looking for careers on Capitol Hill. Many go on to graduate school or local politics, according to Henson.

“I don’t want to put a specific end goal on it. I have a job I’m going back to in Texas and I might get involved in state politics there. I have to figure out whether or not that lifestyle is right for me, but I’d never rule it out. I love D.C. and definitely want to come back,” Elliott said. “The people here, they’re not what’s portrayed on TV, they really care about making a difference.”

Henson and College to Congress are confident their students will be the next batch to change the world.

The program is open to any college junior, senior or recent graduate. To find out if you qualify, visit www.collegetocongress.org.

“I don’t feel special, I’m no different than anyone else who has grown up here,” Elliott said. “I’m a first-generation college student and I probably also wouldn’t have gone to school without people encouraging me to do so. I’m so thankful for all the people at PCHS.

“There are so many things out there to do and see; don’t settle for what you have unless it’s what you want.”

Audrey Henson