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Student interns on Capitol Hill assist in COVID-19 pandemic messaging

File Photo by Dean Whitelaw | Staff Photographer
The federal government allocated about $14 billion in relief funding to colleges and universities in a bill passed last week.

In a normal year, sophomore Eshan Alamdeen’s internship on Capitol Hill would involve drafting memos and taking phone calls for Rep. David Trone, D-Md. But now, he’s part of a large-scale effort to ensure Maryland residents get the vaccine.

Last month, Alamdeen drafted an email detailing Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out plan to send to Trone’s entire district. He said the assignment was “rewarding,” especially when he heard the email was requested by the White House COVID-19 Response Team as a template for their own vaccine campaign. 

“We needed to make it, basically, accessible and easy to understand and user-friendly in a format that could be sent out over email,” Alamdeen said. “I needed to find testing locations, numbers, addresses and include their website with a direct URL to apply. And we had to do it for all our counties in district six, which is by far the biggest district in all of Maryland.”

Alamdeen is one of half a dozen students currently working a virtual or in-person internship on the Hill this semester amid the pandemic. Students said throughout their internships at the Capitol, they’ve witnessed how constituents are struggling to receive essential needs, like financial relief, during the pandemic and emboldened their love for politics and assisting people.

Alamdeen said he works three days a week virtually for Trone’s office, which has been running “as smoothly as possible” through various communication channels, like Google Meet and Slack. He said it’s been “fascinating” to watch officials operate during a historical year because of the pandemic.

“My first week was Jan. 4, and two days later and we had a terrorist attack on our Capitol,” Alamadeen said. “So I think it’s a perfect time to start working. And this is a fascinating time to be in politics.”

Sophomore Julia Koscelnik, a political science major, said she is interning this semester for Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. She said the pandemic has influenced “every part” of her internship – she has been answering and assisting constituents who call with concerns, like being months behind on their unemployment checks.

She said she still would have been taking phone calls for the office had she interned in a non-COVID-19 year, but now the phone calls and assignments she does receive are all aimed at providing COVID-19 assistance to constituents during the pandemic. 

“I honestly couldn’t imagine it otherwise,” Koscelnik said. “Because almost every single call that we get has to do in some way with COVID, other than the impeachment. Obviously, [former President Donald Trump] was impeached once before COVID. And then once during COVID, but I think that COVID has impacted the political landscape so much and has made it even more polarized.”

She said it has been especially “interesting” following Trump’s impeachment trial earlier this month, with Raskin taking a central role in the case. Koscelnik said she received “multiple” phone calls from supporters from areas outside of Raskin’s district like Texas and California throughout the trial who called to back the representative’s argument.

Raskin worked as impeachment manager, arguing that Trump incited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and threatened the safety of former Vice President Mike Pence.

“Now, because he was at the forefront of the impeachment trials, he gained such a national focus,” Koscelnik said. “I thought that was really cool, seeing just how now I think almost everyone knows his name if you’ve been following impeachment.”

Sophomore Josh Orenstein, a political science major, said he is interning this semester for Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., in a hybrid capacity, making the trip to Capitol Hill twice a week and working one day remotely.

He said attending hearings and communicating between offices is “easy” to do virtually because he can join any meeting on platforms like WebEx without having to be working in person that day. He said he attended and took notes on a virtual hearing Thursday on the aftermath of GameStop’s sharp rise in the stock market last month to report back to the office.

“They’re keeping as many people out of the office as possible, but in order to provide a more comprehensive and more complete experience for me as an intern, they’ve generously decided to allow me to come in as much as possible,” Orenstein said.

Orenstein said his in-person days aren’t “overwhelmingly different” from the time he spends remotely, as he’s tasked with similar duties like staffing the phones and conducting legislative research. Interns are no longer allowed to give Capitol Hill tours, but he said he wishes he could have that aspect of the typical position.

“There’s no real physical interaction with constituents or guests to the congressman’s office,” Orenstein said. “Capitol Hill is largely devoid of people at the moment. The largest group of people is members of the National Guard and some staffers, but I imagine it’s significantly busier before COVID.”

Sophomore Cam Cayer, a political science major, said he spent last summer working in person for Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., in the Rhode Island office before transitioning online for the fall and spring to the D.C. office. He said although he was not used to working virtually, he still feels his internship has connected him with resources, like communication channels, to feel a part of the team and their work.

Cayer said his virtual internship is also beneficial because he did not have to plan his class schedule around which days he would be working in person.

“In person, it was an actual experience, but online you still get exposure, and you’re still learning about what the House does,” Cayer said. “You’re still seeing what the congressman does.”

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