I first heard about PLEN from an email sent to the Women’s Resource Center at my university, where I work as a Feminist Peer Educator. As someone whose relationship with politics turned into a love affair after taking AP US Politics and Government, attending a Women and Congress Seminar in Washington D.C. was very literally a dream come true. I took care of my academic responsibilities, booked a ticket, and flew to D.C.
Since I had tests and programs slated up until right before I left for D.C., I did not get an opportunity to properly savor the excitement of the seminar until my plane touched down. After exiting the plane, the reality of what I was doing finally hit me, and I could not keep a goofy grin off my face until was I finally picked up and driven to where I was staying for the night. Even then, most of the drive I had to fight hard in order to keep my jaw from hitting the floor. I’d been dreaming of visiting D.C for well over a year now, and my wish had culminated with this seminar.
The seminar started on Monday the 12th of March; I arrived on Saturday the 10th and set aside the entirety of Sunday the 11th for sightseeing. Needless to say, I visited every. Single. Tourist location. Possible. I started at the White House, and from there walked the entirety of the Mall, starting at the Lincoln Memorial and going all the way down to Capitol Hill. I visited the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the Botanical Gardens, and because the day did not have more hours, I was forced to finish at the Air and Space Museum. I was more than ready for the start of the seminar on Monday.
Throughout the week, I was exposed to a plethora of incredible women with incredible careers in D.C. A multitude of topics were discussed, with panel after panel offering a diverse taste of the opportunities available not only on the Hill and within Congress, but spanning lobbying, advocacy work, non-profit work, and careers on the campaign trail. The entire week was captivating and exciting, if for no other reason than because I have a major love for anything related to policy making, politics, and legislation. Despite this, one of the best parts of the seminar was the ability to interact with so many women around the country who are also interested in careers not solely within D.C., but within the policymaking arena nationally. The number of incredibly inspirational and ambitious women I met was astounding, and further emphasized my passion for government, as well as my resounding need to work within the policy arena.
From the seminar, I gathered three major takeaways. First of all, and arguably most important of all, not all of the great policy work we hear of is performed by elected officials, and not all of it is done on the Hill. To elaborate: firstly, an elected official is a combination of a real person (the official), and all of the work put forth by their team. Their Chiefs of Staff, Directors of Legislative Operations, Floor Directors, their interns, and so many more dedicated individuals; all of these people work just as hard as their boss in order to make sure that their constituents get a voice on the floor. Secondly, much of the great work in D.C. is done by non-profits, lobbyists, advocacy specialists, consultants, and a range of other non-governmental organizations. What I took away from this is that in order to work and be successful in D.C., you do not need to necessarily work on the Hill. For me, that opened up a lot of doors, because what I am most interested in career-wise is addressing Puerto Rico’s political status. Realistically, much of the work needed to be done in order to bring about change for Puerto Rico will not be done from within Congress; more likely, change will necessitate the creation of a Puerto Rican advocacy group, dedicated to lobbying Congress and elected officials in order to properly address our political status.
Second of all, and related to my first takeaway, is that many of the women who spoke on the panels did not work just one job. This is not negative, but simply spoke to the fact that a lot of these women had their day job, as well as their hobby, soon-to-be-day-job job. These second jobs ranged from startups to nonprofits and NGOs, and really shed light on the passion so many of the people who work in D.C. have for their jobs. As someone who cannot keep still and is working two jobs as well as sitting on the Executive Board of my college’s Model United Nations, I loved to hear this. It means that you can have your day job and also pursue your passion project, and you won’t be the only person doing so.
Finally, my personal favorite piece of advice (which I received while on my site visit on Wednesday the 14th of March), is that if you really, truly, very much, love government and policy work, you should give D.C. a shot and put your heart on the line. In the end, if you enjoy the work even when it’s unpaid, then you should set your mind to it and struggle as hard as you can in order to make that your daytime job. The woman I spoke to on my site visit, a lobbyist, regularly worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. She had 3 kids and a fourth on the way, and she wouldn’t give her job up for anything else. I was deeply touched by her love for her work, because her description was so raw. She made it clear that the first year working on the Hill was crap work, but work you would never regret doing. As a result of this interaction, I am 1,000,000% sure, to the end of the line and back, that D.C. is where I want to be.
The seminar ended on Friday the 16th of March, and I flew back home on Saturday the 17th. On the plane, I watched Rocky for the first time and discovered my favorite movie (in the two weeks since then I’ve watched the entire series multiple times, but specifically the first Rocky 4 times), and I want to use a Rocky analogy as my conclusion. Rocky struggled hard at something he loved, got a one in a million shot, and went the distance. What I love the most about the movie is that boxing is grueling work. But he loved it and worked harder than anyone else in order to prove himself. In my case, I will say this: policy and government is grueling crap work because many times you get no credit, have to work hard in order to get to where you want to be, and need to fight the whole way there. I love government the way Rocky loves boxing, and will fight tooth and nail to spend my whole life going the distance.
Andrea López-Rivera, a Puerto Rican living in California, attended the PLEN Women and Congress seminar with a scholarship sponsored by Encore Capital Group. She is a San Diego State University student double majoring in International Security and Conflict Resolution and Psychology, with an Honors Interdisciplinary Minor. Her expected graduation date is tentatively set for May 2021.