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A Summer on Capitol Hill Sheds Light on the Policymaking Process

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Senam Okpattah

After participating in the College Park Scholars program in the Public Leadership track, Senam Okpattah developed a love for government, policy and advocacy. As a current public policy major, she’s now participating in a summer internship on Capitol Hill in Congressman Elijah Cummings’ office.

“I think policy education is important because it equips you with the skills needed to really tackle issues rather than just examining them for what they are--learning how to take what you care about and apply it to something more tangible,” Okpattah says. “I didn’t want to just know what was happening or understand how the government functions, but I wanted to be equipped with the skills I needed in order to resolve those issues and remedy them. I feel like public policy is very much solution-oriented.”

Okpattah found her internship through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the placement is special because she’s also a constituent of Congressman Cummings. “I work in his Washington, DC office so this has awarded me a whole host of professional development opportunities,” she says. “Just being in this space and being able to attend hearings and seeing policymaking happen has been really enriching for me thus far. I’ve also reached out to his legislative director who does a lot of work in criminal justice and it’s really helped me recognize the passion that I have for this topic and criminal justice reform.”

Something I learned very quickly is that the effect the legislators and policymakers have is very much a team effort. Oftentimes people only see what’s on C-Span, what’s on Twitter, what’s on TV. But they don’t really know who contributes to the groundwork.
Senam Okpattah SPP Student

Throughout her internship, Okpattah says she’s been able to experience policymaking on all levels. And the process gave her a new understanding of how legislators and their staff members work. “Something I learned very quickly is that the effect the legislators and policymakers have is very much a team effort,” she says. “I think oftentimes people only see what’s on C-Span, what’s on Twitter, what’s on TV. But they don’t really know who contributes to the groundwork in not only crafting legislation, but also notifying other members of congress of the legislation, notifying advocacy groups and just getting the word out. I’ve realized that a lot goes into it.”

Beyond the appreciation she gained for the policymaking process, Okpattah has also been able to network as part of her internship experience. “The best part is being able to be in the room with people that I have such a high level of admiration and respect for,” she says. “I’ve had the privilege of being able to meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, Ayanna Pressley, Lauren Underwood--all of these just amazing beacons of, to me, what it means to be a true powerhouse and someone willing to challenge the status quo and to be outspoken despite their identity or whatever demographic they come from.”

Although she says she hasn’t made any decisions about her career path following graduation yet, Okpattah is sure this internship has impacted her future. “It’s definitely propelled me forward in my process of determining where I want to go next after graduation,” she says. “The work that I’m doing with criminal justice in the office has really made me feel a lot more encouraged and motivated to apply to law school and potentially do a joint program where I could get my master’s in public policy as well as my JD. A lot of the congressman’s staff members have their law degree and seeing how they’re able to apply that knowledge base to the work that they’re doing has been really enriching for me to see and also just to gain a better understanding of what a law degree can afford you outside of practicing law in the courtroom.”

“This internship has been the best and more enriching experience of my life,” Okpattah says. “I feel very humbled and privileged to have been afforded this opportunity. I would highly encourage other students at SPP to try to intern for members of congress. I’ve learned a lot and I’m very thankful to be in this space.”

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