From Lexington to Capitol Hill Want to work for the U.S. Congress? Judging by past successes, earning a degree from Washington and Lee University is a pretty good start.
“Throughout high school, I knew I wanted to work for Congress, and as I decided between schools, I knew that W&L would get me closer to that goal.”
~ Kevin Ortiz ’16
A recent data analysis by the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group shows that, per capita, Washington and Lee University alumni are more likely to secure jobs on Capitol Hill than graduates of almost any other small, private school in the country.
In a November 2019 article published on LegBranch.org, the authors point to W&L’s proximity to the nation’s capital and its strong D.C.-based internship programs as key factors in the ranking. But other influences are also at play, including rigorous academics, support from the Office of Career and Professional Development, and a tightly knit alumni network.
“I’m happy to know that what we are doing is being met with results,” said Brian Alexander, assistant professor of politics at W&L and director of the Washington Term program. “To know that the effort to get people to engage in politics is allowing students to work in positions of national leadership, to take what we teach about politics here and put that into practice, is tremendous. As a professor, that is why you get out of bed in the morning.”
Using the LegiStorm database on congressional staff and data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the working group found that W&L produces 10.5 congressional staffers per 1,000 enrolled students. Only Sewanee produced more, with 11.56 staffers per 1,000 students. Rounding out the top 10 were Claremont McKenna (8.42), Hamilton College (8.01), Hillsdale College (7.94), American University (7.62), Colby College (7.58), Centre College (7.52), Pomona College (7.35) and Kenyon College (7.3).
According to the article, “… based on anecdotal evidence, many of the schools that make the list of top per capita institutions have strong D.C.-based internship programs, which grant students the opportunity to live and intern in Washington, and ultimately lower the barrier to entry for ultimately becoming Hill staffers.” At Washington and Lee University, those opportunities are provided by the DC residential program at the School of Law, and by the undergraduate Washington Term program, which recently turned 30 years old.
For Washington Term, 16 students per year (about one-third the number who apply) go to Washington for the six-week Spring Term experience, which includes an academic course, an internship and a lecture series. More than 400 W&L students have completed the Washington Term course.
Austin Piatt ’17 participated in Washington Term during his sophomore year at W&L, and he says the experience is what inspired him to work on Capitol Hill. After graduation, he worked as a staff assistant in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, then as a staff assistant for the House Rules Committee and, finally, as a legislative aide for Congressman Troy Balderson (R-OH). He is now attending law school at Northwestern.
“Washington Term is a great experience because you learn by doing so much more than you can learn from a book,” Piatt said. “It was the first class I took at W&L where I felt like I could see our readings on politics and Congress come to life each day in my internship.”
Kevin Ortiz ’16 currently works as a congressional policy analyst in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. General Services Administration. Prior to that, he worked for chairmen Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He said that W&L’s proximity to Washington, along with the Washington Term program, drew him to W&L as a high school student.
“Throughout high school, I knew I wanted to work for Congress,” Ortiz said, “and as I decided between schools, I knew that W&L would get me closer to that goal.”
Looking back, Ortiz knows that W&L academics have had a big impact on his career success. “W&L courses are tough, but they really do prepare you for the real world,” he said. “From writing experience to meeting deadlines to juggling several tasks at once, the experiences you have at W&L will set you an arm and a leg over students from other schools.”
Ortiz said Professor Bill Connelly’s class on Congress was especially helpful. “As Connelly likes to say, ‘He who knows the rules, rules,’ and understanding the arcane steps a bill needs to go through in order to complete the legislative process has proven to be invaluable here in D.C. That’s a niche not many people are familiar with, so understanding it can be a huge asset.”
Sarah Bartlett ’16 interned for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) during her Washington Term experience. After graduation and before enrolling at Harvard Law School, she worked as the financial disclosure specialist for the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. She said all of her classes at W&L— not just politics—helped to prepare her to work on Capitol Hill.
“My professors at W&L taught me to think deeply about difficult issues, synthesizing large amounts of information quickly and efficiently, and to communicate clearly,” Bartlett said. “Those skills have helped me in every environment I have been in, and I would encourage anyone—interested in a career on Capitol Hill or otherwise—to take advantage of all the academic offerings at W&L.”
Another experience shared by many W&L alumni who work on Capitol Hill is Mock Convention, a mock presidential nominating process that has taken place at W&L during every presidential election year since 1908. The event is 100-percent student-run.
For Mock Con 2016, Ortiz served as co-political director and political analyst, and Piatt served on the Mock Platform Committee. “Mock Con, in general, is another amazing and unique opportunity that makes W&L such a great place to become politically educated in all the right ways,” Piatt said.
The Office of Career and Professional Development at W&L serves as a valuable resource to all students. Those who participate in Washington Term receive guidance from Lorri Olan, associate director of advising, on how to secure an internship in the nation’s capital. She recommends that they look for positions that match their personal interests and ideals. Olan’s presentation aims to give students “a path and resource for finding both opportunities and connections,” she said, “and figuring out how to make those connections in a really professional way that will set them apart.”
Career and Professional Development offers online tools such as Handshake and other industry resources for identifying job opportunities. Staff also coach students on how to use Colonnade Connections and LinkedIn to connect with alumni.
“In my experience, they were always available to answer any questions or just chat about the future,” Piatt said. “They also possessed expertise and knowledge to guide me in the right direction regarding talking to the right alumni, preparing my resume and interviewing skills, and exploring the best internships to reach my career goals. I can’t speak highly enough of the help they’ve offered over the years.”
Piatt said that even though he graduated two years ago, he still corresponds with Olan, who is always happy to offer advice about his career and law school experience. “I think the fact that the Career and Professional Development office remains committed to their students’ careers and well-being even after they graduate is an example of the ways W&L goes above and beyond,” he said.
Because so many W&L alumni secure work on Capitol Hill, the W&L alumni network also has played a pivotal role in supporting recent graduates who are interested in working in Washington. For example, Ortiz clued in Piatt about the job in Paul Ryan’s office just three days before Piatt graduated. “So, long story short,” Piatt said, “I reach out, drive to D.C. to interview the next day, and have a job offer by graduation— all thanks to that W&L alumni network.”
All of these ingredients add up to success for Generals with an interest in working on Capitol Hill, especially when combined with the qualities that distinguish W&L students from their peers.
“Capitol Hill is a brutally competitive environment, and we turn out competitive, best-and-brightest people who have the capacity to make it in that world,” Alexander said. “I tell my students that I would hire any one of them almost at random because of the name of their university.”