Non-profit takes on unpaid internships on the Hill: "I just want Congress to look like America"
One of the biggest divisions in Congress is the hardest to see: who can afford to work there as an intern. Congress is not required to pay them, and most members do not. But one innovative, non-profit connects low-income students with congressional internships, that some thought they could not afford.
Each year, 8,000 interns come to Congress but for some, Capitol Hill can be a tough climb. Texas native Audrey Henson had to take on a $6,500 loan and two jobs just to afford her unpaid internship seven years ago.
"I come from a town of 380 people, a single mom, grew up in a trailer," Henson said. "I mean, not only are you being asked to fund the bill for housing which can be between $1,500 and $2,000 a month, then you have to pay for your food every day."
That experience led her to create College to Congress, a non-profit that gives low-income students the money and training to succeed in Washington. More than 1,000 students applied this year for 18 grants.
Ryan Schiesser went back to college in Ohio after a career in the Navy and has a 7-year-old son. Marissa Reyes, from Washington state, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. One of her earliest memories was working in agricultural fields with her parents over the summers.
College to Congress spends $26,000 on each intern to cover flights, housing, and food.
"That's a good income from where I come from for like an annual income," Schiesser said.
The money also helps them build a professional wardrobe – another obstacle wealthier interns don't face.
"I had a mental breakdown at like a J.C. Penney's in the sock aisle because there was like 15 types of socks, and I didn't know which one to get," Schiesser recalled.
The program is now in its third year, with backing from big names like Toyota, Facebook, and Google. South Carolina Republican Tim Scott was also an early champion.
"Growing up in a single parent household, mired in poverty, the one thing we did a lot of was work," Scott said.
Working for free is something that simply wouldn't have been an option for him. "And I think it isn't for the average kid in this country," Scott added.
Senator Scott pays his interns already, but most in Congress don't.
"What we've learned is by having a cross section of all of America employed here, I serve, hopefully, all of America better," Scott said.
Ryan Schiesser says interning for a Senate subcommittee is already opening doors he never knew existed.
"This is insane. I'm just meeting people, and they're like, 'Do you want a job?' Networking's huge," he said.
Marissa Reyes is making contacts too, interning for Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
"It's funny because everyone's like, 'Want to get coffee? Want to get coffee?' And I'm like, 'Wow, you guys really like coffee!'"
Eighty-seven percent of College to Congress alumni have stayed in public service.
"This is a generation that is hungry to be a part of the difference, who isn't desensitized like a lot of other Americans are, but who really do see an opportunity to fix this," Henson said. "I just want Congress to look like America. I want the American people to be heard."