Six months ago I received an e-mail from a U.S. senator’s office. It was the director of the office’s internship program, and she was offering me an internship on Capitol Hill for the summer. I was ecstatic. After countless cover letters, resume rewrites and awkward phone interviews, I had finally achieved my goal: I was going to work on Capitol Hill. To a political junkie like me, working in our nation’s capital is truly the Holy Grail of summer internships.

I responded to the e-mail minutes after receiving it, accepting the internship and thanking the woman for this auspicious opportunity. After calling my family and telling them the awesome news, I sat back in my chair in silence and embraced the moment. I had fulfilled my lifelong dream.

Then reality set in: How the hell am I going to pay for this?

Every year, more than 20,000 college-age individuals descend onto Washington, D.C. for internships in offices varying from the White House to lobbying firms on K Street. The vast majority of them are unpaid.

As if working 45 hours a week unpaid wasn’t costly enough in terms of the forgone income that one could be making at a minimum-wage job, living costs in D.C. are among the highest of any U.S. city. In fact, according to BusinessInsider.com, an online publication that annually measures the cost of living throughout the country, D.C. is ranked the eighth most expensive place to live in the United States.

I knew interning in D.C. was my dream, but now I just needed to figure out a way to pay for it. Luckily, the University has a lot of financial aid available to students who seek unpaid internships. I was fortunate to get a couple sizable grants, but even still, those would just barely cover my rent. Between a part-time job and a serious subsidization from my incredibly supportive parents, I was going to be able to pull it off, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

When I got to D.C., I realized very quickly that the dynamic on Capitol Hill is far from reality. People often say that the Senate is made up of rich, white men. This stereotype isn’t very far from the truth, but what people don’t realize is that the offices that work for these senators share a similar makeup.

From the first day I started my internship, I began to notice an extreme lack in diversity on Capitol Hill — not just in race and ethnicity, but also in terms of socio-economic status. If the United States has a serious “haves and have-nots” problem, then D.C. can almost be considered the epicenter of this rampant societal dysfunction.

You don’t have to be an economist to figure out why this unrepresentative demographic exists in Washington: The only people who can afford to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is a Congressional internship are kids from wealthy families. After all, how many inner-city kids from single-parent households do you know that can afford a job that requires one to pay rent that usually exceeds $800 a month, $15 or more for meals, and has a business-formal dress code Monday through Thursday?

The problem of having an internship program made up primarily of rich, white kids is one that will cause a viscous cycle that will have detrimental effects on our political system. Internships in D.C. are meant to be an opportunity for young Americans to experience government and policy firsthand and to prepare a future generation of leaders. If the only people that can afford this experience are the wealthy few, then our future leaders will be equally as unrepresentative.

While many argue that there should be a minimum wage for interns in D.C., I understand just how complicated that would be considering how tight our nation’s budget is right now. However, if Congress wishes to host an internship program that truly benefits future generations there should be federal grants for unpaid interns for which underprivileged students can apply. Yes, this program would cost the federal government money, but the results would be a generation of young leaders who actually represent the country that they will inherit.

My summer internship in D.C. was one of the best experiences of my life. It pains me to think that those less fortunate than I are unable to share such an unbelievably constructive opportunity. The federal government needs to change its internship program; otherwise our future government will be even more unrepresentative than the one we have now.

Patrick Maillet can be reached at maillet@umich.edu.

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