How I Learn by Doing

In the Thick of the Action

By Malcolm Mills

Photo by Logan Werlinger
Malcolm Mills during the Washington, D.C., leg of his internship in Congress

Malcolm Mills is a senior sociology major who was selected as Cal Poly’s representative in the annual Panetta Institute for Public Policy Congressional internship.


It’s one thing to read about how things run in our federal government — to listen to political pundits on TV or read articles or watch the news — all things I love doing. It’s another to be in the thick of the action — to be right in the heart of it, taking part in it.

For two and a half months I was in Washington, D.C., representing Cal Poly as a Panetta Institute for Public Policy Congressional intern. I learned about Congress by working in a congressional office. The internship opportunity taught me more about politics and how the federal government functions than I had learned in all my years in school and watching the news.

Two weeks before the internship began, I and 25 other interns went through an intense and comprehensive training at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU Monterey Bay. Within hours of arriving, we were sitting down with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Vice President Dan Quayle. Throughout that time, experienced public servants spoke to us on a broad range of topics, including how the federal government is supposed to function versus how it actually functions, the finer points of being an effective congressional intern, and how to make the most of our time in Washington, D.C.

Secretary Panetta held seminars with us, drawing from his vast well of experience to explain some of the complicated dynamics of national security and foreign affairs. By the time we were finished at the institute, it felt as if we were already done — but it was simply the beginning.

From there, we went to Washington, D.C. This wasn’t my first time in the capitol, however, it was the first time I was able to truly appreciate my time there. I felt like I was seeing the city for the first time. The other interns and I spent many hours exploring the city and seeing what it had to offer, from the Smithsonian museums to enjoying jazz in the garden at the National Art Gallery. I was able to see the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. I stood at the spot where he gave his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech.” Standing there, walking up and down the steps where he stood, was a truly powerful and unforgettable moment for me.

We were able to take in the sights, but make no mistake, we were in Washington, D.C., to do more than explore. We were there to work — to Learn by Doing. I was assigned to work for Congresswoman Grace Napolitano from California’s 32nd congressional district. Working in her office couldn’t have been a better opportunity to learn about how things are done on Capitol Hill. Rep. Napolitano is a busy woman. But she took the time to get to know me and found the opportunity to interact with me on a deeper level. She truly cares for the people she represents, and her longevity as a member of Congress is evidence that her constituents appreciate the work she does.

The staffers in her office were truly amazing to work for. Everyone was willing to help me learn how things were done. They encouraged me to learn more about the daily operations of a congressional office. They had me work on various projects for them and the congresswoman, which allowed me to further my knowledge about how the political process works. I interacted with the constituents in her districts, learning more about the district and the issues important to its citizens. I attended congressional briefings in which experts and passionate advocates informed the staffers and the congresswoman about various issues. By the end of the internship, I felt like I was part of the staff, which made saying “goodbye” much harder.

Someone told me that this would be a life-changing experience. At the time, I couldn’t grasp the truth in those words. But after this experience, I’d say that was the perfect way to describe this opportunity.

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