2017 PFIG Recipient Humna Sharif
Journal Entry #1
As an Environmental Science and ETP double major at UVA, I want to work with policy makers for better environmental legislation to be passed. The incredible scientific research being done all over the world can help us transition towards a more environmentally sustainable society. Nevertheless, there is a need for more people who understand both the scientific and policy aspects of the world’s current environmental predicament.
I have been able to take many science courses, and some politics classes during my time in college. However, I decided to dedicate my time off from school this year to attaining practical policy and legislative experience. This summer I have the amazing opportunity to intern with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia in the US Senate Washington DC. My six-week internship began on July 5th, and ends on August 11. During this time I will work close to 35-40 hours every week.
I chose to apply for this internship because Senator Warner has voiced his support for environmental conservation on multiple occasions. Being able to work on policy issues in my own state seemed the best way to creating a career in environmental policy. At this internship, I will get the opportunity to engage in a myriad of different U.S. Senate-related tasks.
Having started my internship only three days ago, I have not been assigned a legislative area yet. The first few days have been spent in orientations and training. Senator Warner’s office has highlighted several key experiences for interns to engage in during their time at the Senate, and the Capitol to make this internship a well-rounded experience.
The first day began with a brief orientation and introduction of other interns (there are 10 in my group, including me). The orientation was followed by a trip to the ID office, where getting our U.S. Senate Intern IDs was a milestone moment. The senate IDs grant interns quasi-staff status, the ability to freely move between office buildings, and access the Capitol.
Afterwards we were sent on a scavenger hunt through the Senate office buildings (Hart, Dirksen, and Russel) as well as the Capitol Hill to familiarize ourselves with the surroundings. The office buildings, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress are all connected through tunnels, and on several floors of the buildings. This makes it easier to move from place to place, but also provides ample opportunity for new interns to get lost. I am happy to say that our office gave us plenty of time to explore and take in our new surroundings.
Diving into the whole busy office experience, I along with four other interns received voicemail and phone training on the second day. Diligently hearing out all constituents’ opinions, thoughts and concerns is a vital part of Senator Warner’s office, and the interns had a chance to understand how public opinions and responses impact the workings of the government.
The third day--today--was dedicated to the Capitol. The interns were given an extensive tour of the Capitol building, while also being trained to give staff led tours to constituents who ask for them. Being a huge fan of history, and having read about the capitol so many times (without ever getting to see it) today really was one of the best days ever for me. Security training, and the logistical reality of several thousand-people visiting the capitol every day for a tour went hand in hand with historical facts, and visually appealing architecture of the hill during today’s work day. I read about the U.S. Capitol 8 years ago, in Dan Brown’s book Lost Symbol. I put it on my list of places to one day visit, right alongside the Duomo of Florence, the Egyptian Pyramids, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and many other world landmarks. I am happy to say that today I crossed the first item off that last. I would have never gotten such a detailed tour, and the opportunity to go back over and over to explore had it not been for this internship.
The training leg of the internship is almost at an end, on Monday the interns dive into the legislative and admin work of the office. So far, I have not done any environmental policy work; it’s possible I may only get to work on my specific issue area for a short while. However, for a college student with no practical experience in the policy or legislative fields, all related work regardless of subject is an extremely important learning resource. I know for certain that every single second I spend in the Senate offices, and the Capitol, is teaching me valuable skills, and building my knowledge base to supplement everything I have learnt in the classrooms.
More on my commute time, legislation, fellow interns, and Senator Warner next week (I haven’t met him just yet). And I will post pictures.
PS: This place is full of UVA students and alumni. My intern group has three undergrad students, one grad student, and an alum; all from UVA. Even the staff has a few UVA grads.
Journal Entry #2
I have mastered the art of leaning against the glass window of the VRE train and sleeping in the morning on my almost two-hour commute to D.C. from Fredericksburg The train is ice cold, so I travel with my UVA hoodie pulled over my head, and the perfectly ironed suit jacket hangs on the train’s coat hook in front of me. Yes, the commute is very long, but the experience that awaits me at the end of the VRE line each day is worth every sleep deprived early morning.
I completed my training the first week of this internship and dove right into work. An 8- or 9-hour long work day sounds like a lot of time, but believe me when I say the work day does not have nearly enough hours for me to do everything I want to. Two weeks ago I was assigned to my legislative team. I am happy to say I made my love for all things science and environment very clear, because I was put on the Science, Energy, and Agricultural team. My second legislative team is Education, Workforce, and Labor relations.
In the last few weeks, I have attended hearings for senate committees, sat through bill markup briefings, gone to informational events, documentary screenings, caucus events, answered hundreds of phone calls, sat in on constituent meetings, written memos for the assigned legislative meetings, taken groups for Capitol Hill tours, done in depth research on potential legislative issues, drafted response letters, attended staff meetings, and have seen the proceedings of the senate floor live.
Being here in the heart of D.C. has provided me with invaluable experience and insight into how the government runs. In some small way, I can contribute to the day to day workings of the Hill. As the debate on the healthcare bill unfolds, nothing makes one realize the magnitude of decisions made in Congress, more than being here to witness those decisions being made firsthand.
Last week I covered an Energy and Resource security hearing for my office. That was my first look into how Senate Committees invite experts in various fields to provide testimonies while the legislative teams work on drafting new bills. The hearing had advocates for clean renewable energy, and also advocates for increased oil and gas production from shale reserves. The polarity of statements from experts was also broken up by a few moderate witnesses. As these testimonies were delivered, questions asked, and the finer points of energy security debated, my decision to intern in D.C. was enforced once again. I again realized that to become a part of conversations like these was exactly why I was in college studying Environmental Science and Policy.
Some senators took a balanced stance in support of phasing out oil production slowly so we can move towards renewables to protect the environments. Senator King, and Heinrich declared that oil production is not an unalloyed good, and we’d have to build sea walls if mankind doesn’t begin to act responsibly. Other members like Senator Manchin, and Cassidy supported more oil production, and U.S. taking a dominant role in exportation of natural gas. Agreeing with the first two senators, I got an example of the kind people I would like to be more like, listening to the latter two senators I still got valuable insight about how the other side thinks.
Some of the most exciting moments of the day happen while navigating the labyrinth of tunnels laid below the Capitol complex joining the House and Senate office buildings to the Hill and Library of Congress. My count of running into Bernie Sanders has now gone up to three. The first time he walked right past me and I went two steps ahead and then took a double take, the second time I managed to say Hi. The third time was today, and I attempted an awkward wave, along with my even more awkward Hi. If a selfie with Bernie Sanders comes out of this experience I will be very happy.
The day Christopher Wray’s nomination was confirmed as FBI’s Director I was sitting a few tables away from him during lunch. Me and my fellow interns spent about 40 minutes debating if it really was Christopher Wray, none of us could really work up the courage to go talk to him. Today we saw Mr. Wray again, and yes, we did go up to him and introduce ourselves. I also ran into Senator Heinrich today, and Senator Coon’s team probably thinks I’m stalking him since I’ve come across him randomly in the hallways about half a dozen times. Did I mention there was also that brief encounter with Vice President Joe Biden, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt?
Today the offices of Senator Warner and Kaine organized the Commonwealth Coffee for VA Scouts. At the end of the event an awesome photo op with Senator Kaine presented itself and the day started for all interns on a high note. Later in the day former Virginia Senator John Warner called, and I got to take that call. If you’ve never spoken to Sen. John Warner I would like to say he is an incredibly nice person who took the time to have a conversation with an intern.
So far, the coolest moment of this internship was on Wednesday (07/26). I was assigned to go to an event organized the Congressional Chemistry Caucus in association with the American Chemical Society. One of the panelists there was Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Over two days later I’m still over the moon because I got to meet an astronaut. I may be studying Environmental Science but my love for NASA and all things space has endured since I was eight years old. Meeting Dr. Caldwell Dyson was a standout moment for me, I’ve wanted to meet an astronaut ever since I learnt what the word meant.
I have only two more weeks left of this internship. Time has flown by so quickly, I wish the internship was longer. As I sit on the train once again on my way home, all I can think is that I’m nowhere near ready to leave yet!
Journal Entry #3
Friday (08-11-2017) marked the end of my internship with Senator Warner. The last two weeks in the senate were very different than the rest of my experience. This time was much more heavily focused on legislative work. As the healthcare debate died down, and Congress members left for their fall recess, the office was allowed some much needed to time to catch up on pending legislative research. I was assigned some work outside of my usual policy areas, and spent a few days reading crime statistic and mass incarceration reports by the Brennan Center for Justice. My job was to take in the information and condense it down to the briefest, most important points and then write a memo. My personal best was putting an over seventy-page report in less than seven pages, that still got all the important points across.
I also worked on a longer research project for my education and labour policy team. I was assigned to research sexual assault in K-12 schools, especially focusing on the scope of the problem in Virginia. I also had to look for ways to address the issue through federal policy changes.
Some of these topics I was researching were so different from the policy issues I usually comes across or consider on my own. However, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to delve into issue areas outside of my box of science and environment. I can probably recite mass incarceration statistics for the last two decades off the top of my head now. And the K-12 sexual assault project was eye-opening in a heartbreaking way because so many of us don’t realize what a huge issue that is.
Us interns also finally got our moment of glory with Senator Warner. The last week before congress recessed, we all sat together in the conference room and had lunch with Senator Warner.
The last day of the internship was spent writing exit memos, finishing up the last of our legislative work, and writing an abundance of thank you notes. The staff threw us a surprise last day of internship party where everyone was put on the spot and we had to tell them our best and worst moments. We also visited the speaker’s gallery and got an amazing view of D.C.
I wrapped up my day with a last phone call from a constituent not so happy with the current state of affairs. I got called disgraceful and a disappointment but that was okay, you win some and you lose some. This wasn’t the worst phone call I had by any means. The words communists, and fascists are uttered over the phone more commonly than one might imagine, but then there are also those calls which fill your heart with joy as people express their gratefulness
Everything put together, I could not have asked for a better internship experience. Warner World is filled with great staff members, and our Virginia senator truly cares for the well-being of his constituents. I was honored to be chosen for an internship position on Capitol Hill with Sen. Warner’s office, and hopefully I can return soon.