Last Tuesday, the Congressional Fellows had our last day of orientation together, which was entirely focused around the placement process. We picked up some good tips, but I think we were all seized by a general sense of, “We’ve been waiting for two weeks. Let’s get started!”
The kick-off for Placement was a reception on Tuesday evening in the Capitol for the Fellows, Congressional staff, and some AAAS staff who came to help with the match-making. A number of us learned the hard way that all food and drink is forbidden through security, but we’ll know for next time. Our event started officially at 5 PM, but the Fellows arrived early for some very good reasons. First, I know that personally, I have yet to master the skills required to eat, drink, and chat all at the same time. I can manage two of three but not all three. Thus I needed to have a few snacks before everything started because eating was going to be the expendable activity.
Navigating a reception or cocktail party has turned out to be an important life skill that I recommend all people should learn. My training came when I was about 16 and became involved with the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY. I started as an usher, moved up to doing make-up and wigs, and eventually sang in the chorus for several summers. That meant cast parties with people who were largely my parents’ age. My parents were also involved with the Opera, but much as I love my parents, I didn’t think it was cool to cling to them at parties. I figured that I could probably find ten minutes of conversation with just about anyone (hint: asking questions always helps), and thus I learned to mingle.
So the Placement reception turned out to be mingling with a mission. I had a rough mental list of the offices that interested me, so I set out to optimize my mingling time by trying to target people from those offices. (Yes, this is the way a scientist mingles.) I had also taken advantage of opportunities to chat with former fellows over the past two weeks, and that paid off by some of those people pointing me toward staff who were looking for people with my expertise. Then in the oddest twist, now and then one of the AAAS staffers would grab my elbow and say, “Come here. So-and-so wants to meet you.” Wow, I might not be a rock star, but I certainly felt at the very least like a rather sparkly pebble.
Interspersed with the mingling, three separate members of Congress came by to visit briefly and make a few remarks. Each one mentioned how much he valued the Fellows program and not incidentally, each made a plug for working with his office. Go team!
As long as I’m dispensing advice on mingling with a mission, I’ll say that wearing a blazer with pockets was essential. I had my own business cards in one pocket to hand out to people, and I put the cards I received in the other pocket. I didn’t take time to jot down notes on the backs of the cards, but I remembered nearly everyone afterwards.
That evening and the next morning, I sent emails and resumes to the people who I was interested in interviewing, and then I waited. AAAS has rented space for the Fellows a short walk from the Senate office buildings, so about half of us ended up there for a chunk of the day.
This is where things got really interesting. There are probably at least a dozen fellows who have interests that overlap with mine. We know that we’ll all be essentially competing for the same offices, although we also know that we will all get placed, and that our fellow Fellows will be an important network when we get going. So there is a choice that each one of us had to make about whether to keep all information private or to share information and encouragement with each other. It’s been a pleasure to realize that most of my fellow Fellows have made the same decision, and we have been extremely collegial. We’ve helped identify the random business cards that we acquired and can’t quite place. We’ve shared contact information for the best way to reach an office. When someone came back from an interview in an office that interests me and announced a great interview, I have wholeheartedly replied, “That’s awesome!” Making the challenging choice and choosing to value our relationships is knitting us even closer together.
I think one of the most surreal experiences I have had thus far was sitting in the atrium of the Hart Senate office building. I visited my Senator there a couple of years ago and felt intimidated and out of place until I realized that one of the virtues of being an American is that I actually have the right and responsibility to tell my representatives how I stand on an issue. On Thursday morning, while I sitting in that same space jotting down notes from my most recent interview, three of my fellow Fellows spotted me and came over to chat. As the four of us de-briefed each other, I realized that not only did I belong in this space, but I had friends there as well! Oh how far I’ve come.