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Hill Climbers: This Staffer Is in the Driver’s Seat

Claire O'Rourke Turned Internships Into a Spot With Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper

Most Capitol Hill interns juggle their jobs in between online courses and bar bills, but for Legislative Assistant Claire O’Rourke, her first internship came during a very different time in her life: her driver’s education.

“I was definitely the only one leaving the office for driver’s ed classes. I turned 16 that summer, which is how my internship came to an end,” said O’Rourke, now 25. “They gave me a key chain and mug and said, ‘Now go get your driver’s license!’ From that time on, I knew Capitol Hill is where I wanted to be.”

As an intern, she updated contact lists and shadowed hearings for the minority staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but what really solidified her current position with Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) was her background in international relations. Not only did O’Rourke earn a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs, she also studied abroad in China during the summer of 2006.

“It’s like nothing I have ever seen before,” she said. “America’s history is relatively short, but China is so much older than us. You’ll go to a museum and see an artifact from 4,000 years ago. It’s amazing.”

During her time abroad, the University of Virginia alumna studied history, culture and language. O’Rourke took Asian studies courses in college, which she noticed became increasingly popular during her time there, but living in China is what cultivated her interest in international politics — and, of course, her appreciation for the culture.

“It also made me love real Chinese food. It’s spicier and not as fried,” she said. “I still love American Chinese food, but now I just have cravings for both.”

O’Rourke, who hails from Arlington, Va., was granted her second Hill internship with the office of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) in 2005. She was excited to have more responsibility this time, including answering phones and interacting with constituents.

“This was the first time I learned how a personal office works and the importance of interacting with constituents,” O’Rourke said. “As someone who grew up in his district, I was almost always directly impacted by the decisions he made on our behalf. I felt as though I was a small part of making my own community a better place.”

After graduation, she applied for several jobs in D.C. and eventually landed a position at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in August 2007. She did legislative and policy work in the international division and the Congressional and public affairs division.

“I was exposed to a breadth of policy issues that I had not been knowledgeable on,” O’Rourke said. “It was an excellent way to learn what most active legislative issues in Washington are.”

She stayed with the chamber for nearly three years before seeking a more substantive role with Dahlkemper. In May 2010, she began her job working on financial services, foreign affairs and homeland security.

“I love that my boss is not a career politician. Just two years ago she was a constituent herself. She brings an outside-the-Beltway perspective because of that,” O’Rourke said. “On a lighter note, as a nutritionist, she makes sure we have a supply of apples and oranges to keep our energy up, which is a huge plus to working in the office.”

Other perks in working for Dahlkemper include the fact that O’Rourke has the “easiest commute in the world” since she moved to her quaint Capitol Hill neighborhood five weeks ago. But the “Top Chef D.C.” fan is also a self-professed appalling cook, so getting her to visit her Virginia home isn’t difficult.

“My family is always willing to cook me my favorite meals and bribe me to come back more often,” she said. “I value the home-cooked meals they provide.”

The legislative assistant pictures herself staying planted on the Hill for a while because this is where she yearned to be since age 15, but having a career abroad or teaching English in China isn’t entirely out of the question.

“I’ve gotten the chance to learn so many things. That’s why I love the Hill, because it’s so fast paced and it has purpose,” O’Rourke said. “As long as I’m occupied with new things, I will always be happy.”

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