For most college students, participation in American democracy simply means a trip to the polls every two years. But for Rhianna Lemos-Girton, 21, of Whittier, being involved goes far beyond just voting. Rhianna works for Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, the representative for California’s 39th Congressional District, and for three months this summer, she is finding out everything that goes on behind the scenes at the office of a U.S. representative—from disgruntled phone calls from constituents to hours of research on the issues.
Rhianna’s interest in politics was sparked during an eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. One of the highlights of the trip was a meeting with representative Grace Napolitano from California’s 38th Congressional District, who discussed the ins and outs of everything that happens on the Hill. The visit made a big impression on Rhianna, who decided on her return to California to become involved in student government at her high school.
Entering college, Rhianna knew she still liked politics, but she wasn’t convinced that she should major in it. She enrolled at Cerritos College, with the thought of majoring in sociology. But after taking a few political science classes, she was hooked, and has never looked back. One of the reasons for this, she says, is her professors.
“Professor Falcon made the subject interesting…he had a lot of activities to get students involved and help them know what’s going on in government,” she said. “There was no boring reading—it was more fun, hands-on activities.”
One of Rhianna’s favorite projects was being assigned to research a member of Congress, and learning about their constituency and their views on issues. Each member of the class had to join “committees” and advance legislation based on their knowledge of their assigned representatives.
“We got into groups, Democrats versus Republicans, and had to come up with a plan for budget cuts to balance the federal budget. We had debates in class about it … everyone was fighting about the budget cuts.”
Though Rhianna didn’t know it at the time, she would soon be a lot closer to the real thing. As she neared graduation last May, one of her professors approached her about applying for an internship offered by Sanchez’s office. Originally, Rhianna applied for the internship in the congresswoman’s Washington, D.C. office. Even though she missed the deadline, those in the office who reviewed her file strongly encouraged her to apply for the internship in the district office. She did, and was selected.
Rhianna soon was exposed to one of the challenging sides of politics; her first day on the job, she picked up the phone to get an earful from an angry constituent. It’s just a part of the job, she says. In those instances, she must take down the name and concerns of the caller, and listen without giving any of her own views.
Rhianna acknowledges that her job does get emotionally exhausting at times, but she’s not complaining.
“Just having the opportunity to work in the office is a prestigious position, even if I’m only an intern,” she says. “It’s neat working in the government.
“In the classroom you can read about government, and you can know about it to a certain point, but it’s the hands-on experience that really gives you an idea of how it works.”
Something that’s surprised her, she says, is the amount of time she and the other staff members spend assisting constituents.
“I didn’t realize till now how much they help the people they represent,” she explains.
Once her internship ends at the close of the month, Rhianna will move to Northern California to enroll in CSU East Bay, where she has been accepted to the pre-law program.
“I’d like to become a lawyer, and stay involved in politics,” she says.
Sanchez is, of course, one of her role models.
“She is getting into it, doing big things and making a name for herself, even though she’s young, a minority and a woman,” Rhianna explains.
And if Rhianna keeps to the path she’s on now, Sanchez won’t be the only one.