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Hill Climbers: Unconventional Paths to the Hill

There’s typically an established path for Capitol Hill staffers. Start interning for the office as a bright-eyed college student and get hired as a staff assistant after graduating. Then work on either the policy side by being promoted to legislative assistant or on the communications side by being promoted to press assistant. From there, it’s all about working hard to get to the top, whether that’s as chief of staff, legislative director or communications director.

But some people take less traditional routes to working on the Hill. Of the Hill Climbers whom Roll Call has talked to in the past several months, here are some of the people who made the most interesting professional leaps from seemingly unrelated industries to the Hill, and how they made it work.

A Stand-Up Staffer

Before coming to the Hill, Amber Aviles — now legislative assistant for Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) — worked as a voice-over actor and stand-up comedian.

Tired of the inconsistencies that came with working in the performing arts and looking for more of a challenge, Aviles decided to apply to master’s degree programs in her home state of California. “I was fortunate to get into Pepperdine University,” she said in an email, “and off I went.”

Now she’s working in Baca’s office, helping analyze and shape the legislation that will affect her office’s constituents.

“As a voice-over actor, we pretend to be a character, lay down the track and move on,” she said. “Here, there are major ramifications if you make the wrong move.”

As a West Coast native, Aviles said one of the biggest obstacles she faced was learning to adapt to D.C. culture. “It is very different from the California way of life,” she said, calling her experience “a very interesting transition, but also quite amusing.”

A Storyteller at Heart

Jack d’Annibale has worked on movies that you’ve seen. Although he is now the communications director for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), the former creative executive at Jerry Bruckheimer Films worked on the second and third installments of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, the “National Treasure” sequel and “Deja Vu,” starring Denzel Washington.

But when Hollywood writers went on strike in 2007, d’Annibale was out of a job and turned to politics, initially volunteering for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in California.

“What really kind of finalized the decision [to work in politics] was working on the campaign and then seeing Sen. Obama become President-elect Obama,” he said.

At first, d’Annibale admitted, the transition seemed odd. “Jack’s doing a Kal Penn,” he said his friends would joke, referring to actor Kal Penn, who has crossed back and forth between working in television and film and working in the White House.

But d’Annibale knew he had a skill that translated well from entertainment to politics. “What I really loved to do is tell stories,” he said, “and in a political capacity, that means being a press guy and/or writing speeches.”

He said the biggest reason for his success was the clear path that he envisioned for himself. “What helped is that I had a specific vision of what I could do and how I could contribute to my country,” he said.

D’Annibale encourages others considering a similar career change to take the leap.

A Sharks Survivor

For some, making the switch to Hill staffer is a result of other circumstances. “My family’s move from California to D.C. allowed me the chance to finally work on the Hill,” explained Laura Sisemore, press secretary for Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

Before she was writing press releases for Quigley, Sisemore was working in community outreach for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. Even though she knew her experiences in the hockey world made her well-suited for a job on the Hill, she was prepared to prove that to potential employers.

“Even if you bring years of off-Hill experience, employers might see it as taking a risk on you if you’ve worked in a nontraditional sector, which in my case was sports and entertainment,” Sisemore said. “You have to know how your skill set and experience translates to working in a Congressional office.”

One of the things Sisemore said she had to adjust to was the work environment of the Hill. “The Hill is 24/7,” she said, “especially if you’re in a communications role, and I’ve officially become that person who puts two cellphones, my personal and my BlackBerry, on the table when I’m out at dinner after hours.”

If there’s one thing Sisemore wishes she had known coming in, it was how much time she would spend at happy hours and other after-work events. “I might have tried to put some more time in at the gym,” she joked.

Submit news of hires and promotions on Capitol Hill to Hill Climbers here.

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