Interns Get a Boost From College to Congress

‘These people belong here, they just can’t afford to be here,’ founder Audrey Henson says

Audrey Henson with last summer’s College to Congress interns. (Courtesy College to Congress)
Audrey Henson with last summer’s College to Congress interns. (Courtesy College to Congress)
Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:00am

This summer, 12 students will have their cost of living covered as they intern on Capitol Hill, so they can focus on their work.

College to Congress, a program that strives to level the playing field for congressional interns, selects students to invest in and places them in Hill offices.

“My whole argument is that these people belong here, they just can’t afford to be here,” founder and CEO Audrey Henson said.

Henson launched College to Congress after the 2016 elections, when conversation swirled about voices from lower socioeconomic classes not being heard.

“Of course, they’re not heard, they’re not there. They’re not in Congress,” Henson said. “I was one of those students. I was a Pell Grant student and I worked throughout college and I worked throughout my internships.” 

To find students, College to Congress has affiliated with more than 250 colleges with a large number of Pell Grant students and high graduation rates.

More than 300 students applied for the 12 internship spots.

Each intern has $26,000 allocated to them: $10,000 of it for meals, clothes, dry cleaning, traveling to and from D.C., and housing; and the remainder for training and events on everything from résumé help, interview skills and etiquette. College to Congress has partnered with Washington Intern Student Housing.

The program assumes students won’t have paid internships, but getting them won’t affect the money they receive.

House Co-Chairs, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Rep. Fred Upton, along with Michael Gallagher (Entertainment Software Association, CEO) and I at our College to Congress Launch event. The event was held at ESA's office. (Courtesy of College to Congress)
From left, House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, Henson and Entertainment Software Association CEO Michael Gallagher at the College to Congress launch event in June 2017. Hoyer and Upton chair a group of 50 lawmakers who accept interns from the program. (Courtesy of College to Congress)

Henson first came to D.C. in 2013 through unpaid internships for Republican Reps. Joe L. Barton of Texas and Rick Crawford of Arkansas. She was then hired as a staff assistant to Ohio GOP Rep. Bill Johnson.

To augment her $25,000-a-year salary, she tended bar at The 201 Bar and Union Pub.

“I think it’s great to hustle when you’re young, but there does come a time when it’s unsustainable. I couldn’t go to receptions and network to get better jobs because I was bartending,” she said.

Henson got a substantial pay increase when she left the Hill to work at Strategic Partners & Media, a campaign consulting firm, for the 2014 election cycle. She moved on to Fiscal Note, a political technology firm, for the 2016 cycle. 

Through it all, she recalled becoming “obsessed” with creating College to Congress. After the election, she made it her full-time job.

There were six students in the first intern class in 2017. This year’s group of 12 includes five Republicans, five Democrats and two independents.

A committee of 17 former and current Hill staffers reviewed each application for College to Congress.

Fifty lawmakers from both chambers signed on to accept the students as interns. A group of four staffers will place the interns based on where they’re from and their political affiliation.

Funding has come from groups like the Hewlett Foundation and the Democracy Fund. Henson is continuing to fundraise to grow the size of next year’s class. 

Her long-term vision, she said, is to run Congress’ internship program.

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