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Not Over the Hill

Gwen Farmer isn’t your typical Hill intern.

After nine years as a recruiter at one of Washington, D.C.’s most prominent law firms, Farmer realized she had one major regret: She had never finished college. She enrolled at Howard University, where she’s now a junior. She began an internship in the office of Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). And she’s contemplating a radical career change. 

“I didn’t want it to say on my epitaph: She didn’t finish college,” Farmer said in an interview in Clay’s office. 

Farmer, a lively (possibly?) 40-something in a brightly colored print dress, laughed when asked about her age. 

“Even my son doesn’t know my real age,” she replied. “Age isn’t a big deal.”

She found the internship through the for-credit Congressional Internship Program at the University of the District of Columbia, hoping it would bring her one step closer to her dream of working in communications or public relations on Capitol Hill.

In Clay’s office, she has worked on constituent correspondence and has attended hearings. Clay has given her more responsibility than a normal intern, Farmer said.  “I’ve run major offices, and I know what it takes to be efficient and take the ball and run,” she said.

‘Youthful, Fun and Happy’

Farmer dropped out of the University of Maryland at 19 to raise her son. Later, she struggled to find time to return to school. 

She worked as a paralegal. Thirteen years of experience led to her being hired as a senior recruiting coordinator, where she spent nine years traveling around the country to recruit the best students from top law schools.

But Farmer realized how much further she could go if she had a degree, which she had been only three semesters from attaining at College Park. 

Her son, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, recently earned his MBA from the University of Virginia.

“I felt like a hypocrite because I was always adamant about my son doing extremely well in school,” she said. “I just always thought there’s something incomplete in my life. And I always did well in school, but I just didn’t finish.”

Last year she took the leap, quitting her job and enrolling at UDC to finish her degree in communications and journalism. For the fall semester, she transferred to Howard.

“Initially, it was very overwhelming,” she said. “But my son said, ‘Mom, when you get your first A, you’ll feel like you can do well.’ And that propelled me to always continue to do well.”

Farmer said she sometimes feels intimidated working with interns younger than her son, but she doesn’t allow her age to define her.

“What difference does it make how old I am? I just don’t see where the number comes in,” Farmer said. “That’s one of the main reasons why people are apprehensive of taking risks. As adults, and as mature adults, we don’t take chances. I should especially be able to do things now, and I think that’s what keeps me youthful, fun and happy.”

‘Better Fortunes’

Even as an intern, the Southeast D.C. native is no stranger to Capitol Hill. 

Her mother worked for the late Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), and her son, who is now an investment banker at a Wall Street investment firm, interned with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-

She first realized she wanted to work in Congress when her son met with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who sponsored his appointment to West Point. 

“The questions she was asking him, the details she knew about him — I thought, ‘She must have an incredible staff, and I would love to do something like that,’” Farmer said.

And she’s not limiting her job options once she graduates from Howard next spring. She hopes to continue working on the Hill and will look for jobs in human resources or public relations. One of her ideal jobs, she said, would be press secretary for a Member of Congress. 

“I’m hoping the rewards are greater than the risks that I took,” Farmer said. “I hope that I’m preparing myself for better fortunes than I left.”

Correction: Oct. 18, 3:06 p.m.

An earlier version of this article misstated where Gwen Farmer found her internship. She is receiving credit for her internship at the University of the District of Columbia, where she is enrolled in the Congressional Internship Program.

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