After a week as meaningful and inspiring as Washington Week is, delegates often find that their new career goal is to return to Washington to work on Capitol Hill to immerse themselves in the legislative branch. Whether in internships or full-time positions, we are proud to have many alumni who have dedicated their talents and energy to roles on Capitol Hill. Today, we feature two young alumni, Patrick Flanigan (LA-2014) and Rachel Skaar (MT-2014) who completed their undergraduate studies and headed to the Hill. Rachel currently serves as the Press & Digital Assistant for Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Patrick served as a Legislative Correspondent for Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) until his recent departure to attend law school. We hope their experiences and advice can help others chart the pathway to Capitol Hill.
How did your experience as a USSYP delegate impact your desire to work on the Hill?
Patrick: Being a USSYP delegate was a profound experience for me for two reasons. One was being able to meet all of my amazing fellow delegates and the other was for the extremely close access that USSYP provided us throughout Washington Week. Seeing all the senators walk into the USSYP 2014 Annual Senate Reception was a moment that only magnified my interest in politics and government. I am grateful to have been able to walk in with Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) to greet the Louisiana delegates when I was his staffer during Washington Week 2019.
Rachel: My Washington Week in 2014 gave me a tangible idea of what a career in public service could look like, and I left D.C. inspired by the public servants from across government who spoke to us about the ways in which they were able to affect change and make an impact over their careers. My home state senator Jon Tester, who was Co-Chair of the program in 2014, particularly inspired me to pursue a career in politics and to never underestimate my ability to make progress for my state and country.
How did you find and secure a role on the Hill? Do you have any networking tips for others?
Patrick: I got my job because of my time as an intern with the office. I strongly recommend interning if you want to be considered for a job on Capitol Hill. Many staffers throughout the Hill were interns before they had jobs, and now that internships pay there’s even more access for people looking to see if they enjoy working on the Hill.
Rachel: When I was looking for a position on the Hill, I tapped into my connections – from my hometown, previous internships, and from my university’s alumni network – for guidance, eventually leading to my first position on the Hill as a communications fellow in Senator Michael Bennet’s (D-CO) office.
During my job search, a friend advised this – ask each person you meet for coffee if they can connect you with someone in their network who could give you a different perspective or another opportunity to learn about the Hill and how it operates. I found this to be one of the best ways to network on the Hill – but beyond that, this strategy enables you to determine if working on Hill is a good personal fit, and what type of role interests you the most.
What is a typical day like for you? Has your role changed over time?
Patrick: A usual day would vary for me, but when the Senate was in session I would usually accompany Senator Kennedy to his morning Judiciary Committee Hearing (Tuesday was usually a policy hearing, Wednesday a nominations hearing, and Thursday was a committee markup session). Then around lunch I would spend time working on legislation, preparing memos for meetings, and drafting various letters.
Rachel: A typical day for me starts at 6:30 a.m. when I get started on press clips, which I send to our staff at 8:00 a.m. every morning. Once at the office, every day brings new and different challenges – from recording videos with the senator to meeting with other Senate democratic digital staffers, and designing graphics for the senator’s social media channels to drafting and sending press releases on the news of the day – I love the variety each day (and each hour!) brings.
Tell us about your interaction with the senator – how often do you get to meet and speak?
Rachel: One of my favorite parts of my job is serving as the primary photographer for our office – so a lot of my interaction with Senator Bennet is when I photograph him in meetings with constituents, committee hearings, press conferences, and for other creative social media ideas we come up with. I love challenging myself to find creative angles for photos, or to capture him cracking a joke with a group of thirty farmers from Colorado. When a group of 100 students from Colorado came to visit, we thought a selfie with the group would capture the moment best – and the senator was all for it!
Do you have highlight moments to share about your experiences thus far?
Patrick: Senator Kennedy took me to the Senate Floor with him for a speech he was giving about the Ghost Soldiers of World War II. I remember looking up at the ceiling for a while because you can’t see the ceiling on C-SPAN. It was a really special experience that I will remember forever.
Rachel: It was a full circle moment for me when I learned that my boss would be speaking to this year’s USSYP delegates. During my Washington Week in 2014, I vividly remember providing introductory remarks for my home state senator, Senator Jon Tester, and then listening to his advice and perspective on Washington with my class of delegates. This year, while Senator Bennet spoke to the delegates, I snapped photos alongside USSYP photographers Erin Lubin and Jakub Mosur. To return to Washington Week 2019, this time as a staffer, was surreal.
Another highlight moment for me was the opportunity to photograph Senator Bennet while he heard from pro athletes Tommy Caldwell and Caroline Gleich when they were in Washington to testify about the need to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in front of Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. The opportunity to engage with some of my favorite athletes on an issue that I’m passionate about deeply reinforced my conviction that this job is a good fit for me.
Has working with other legislative aides and colleagues in the office given you ideas about issue areas or other roles that you may be interested in for the future?
Rachel: One thing I love about working in press and digital is that every day I have the opportunity to learn more about a variety of issue areas as I draft a press release or tweet on the subject. That said, as a Coloradan, one of Senator Bennet’s priorities is protecting our public lands. Having grown up hiking and fishing on public lands, I have truly enjoyed the work we’ve done to promote and advance his new legislation to protect approximately 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado.
What advice would you give to other students about beginning a career on Capitol Hill?
Rachel: The Hill is a great place to start a career. I’ve found that the depth and breadth of the skills that you build, and the speed at which this happens, is unrivaled. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from fellow press and digital staffers here in the Senate, but also from our policy staff. The community on the Hill is very strong, and I’ve gained a lot from simply asking questions, taking on new and challenging projects, and stepping out of my comfort zone.
I’d advise new staffers never to get complacent – strive to learn something new or meet someone new every day, and to always look for ways that you can better serve constituents – because ultimately, our job is to represent them in Washington to the best of our abilities.
What work skills and other personal qualities have you observed as important for success as a member of a senator’s staff?
Rachel: A strong work ethic, a true desire to serve the constituents of your boss’ state or district, and an ability to work effectively on a fast-moving team have proven to be some of the most important qualities of a good staffer in my experience.
Patrick: The most important work skills necessary for being an effective Senate staffer are diligence, timeliness, and flexibility. These qualities are useful in a constantly changing environment like Congress, and your ability to react quickly to new facts while still being attentive to detail is essential if you’re going to be an effective aide.
Do you ever meet up with or run into other USSYP alums on the Hill?
Rachel: It just so happens that Colorado’s junior senator – Cory Gardner – is also a USSYP alum. During my Washington Week, we heard from Senator Gardner, who was a congressman at the time – and now our communications team regularly works with Senator Gardner’s office on bipartisan legislation and issues of importance to Colorado. D.C. has a very strong community of USSYP alums. My roommate from my Washington Week also lives in D.C. and works at the ACLU. She is now a close friend, and we regularly get together with a group of our fellow delegates who work in D.C. across all sectors.
Photos provided by Patrick Flanigan and Rachel Skaar