Lewis Gives Advice to Students Seeking to Work on Capitol Hill

Senior government major Joseph Lewis may not be an elected official, but he has already worked at the Capitol and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Last summer, he interned with Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and in the fall, his application for an internship at the White House was accepted.

When the White House offered him a position in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, Lewis didn’t hesitate. “I was so excited,” he said. “I said ‘I would love to take this job.'”

The moment he was accepted was a landmark both for him and for the University. “I believe Joseph is the first Gallaudet intern ever to work for the White House through the highly competitive White House Internship Program,” said Anjali Desai-Margolin, acting director of the Career Center, which has acted as a liaison between the internship site and the student. “This is indeed very exciting for Gallaudet, and Joseph sets a good example for other students to follow in his steps to consider internships in the White House,” she added.

Lewis says he is also the first deaf intern in the Obama administration, but he had little time to ponder the historical significance of his selection before getting to work sorting through piles of the president’s mail. Lewis has spent the spring semester filtering through enormous volumes of it. He works a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift three days a week, and sometimes stays into the evening or comes in on weekends for what the White House dubs “Super Saturdays” for volunteers.

Lewis and about 23 other dedicated readers review thousands of letters, cards, and packages every week. The Secret Service has already screened the correspondence for any possible threatening material, so these staff members and volunteers can focus on the written content. They feed names and addresses into a database, take note of the topics in the correspondence, and assign a code to each piece. The most frequent topics, Lewis said, are health care and unemployment. Some of the letters Lewis holds in his hands could very well go into the president’s hands–each day, 10 pieces of mail go from the Office of Presidential Correspondence to President Obama’s desk.

American politics and leadership roles are not new to Lewis. In sixth grade, he won an essay contest in which he wrote about what the American flag meant to him. From there, he built an impressive resume. He became president of the Student Council and the ASTRA (Ability, Service, Training, Responsibility, Achievement) Club for community service at the Iowa School for the Deaf, president of his local Junior National Association of the Deaf chapter, and student representative on the Help America Vote Act State Committee. He also won state and regional public speaking competitions four years in a row, delivering poignant messages on topics such as “youth in today’s world.” When he graduated from high school in 2005, he added the title of valedictorian to his credentials.

Lewis originally planned to attend Iowa State University, but a visit to Gallaudet convinced him to change course. “I was impressed by the diversity on campus, and the bonds people had,” Lewis recalled. He also appreciated the direct communication between students and faculty. Another influencing factor in his decision was the offer of a full scholarship. “My parents said, ‘Take advantage of every opportunity given to you’,” Lewis remembers. He saw the opportunity as one not to miss, so he enrolled at the University.

The decision to come to Gallaudet proved to be a good one. Lewis says he is thrilled that he made the choice, and he has seen how experiences and connections at the school can launch even more possibilities.

For anyone aspiring to work on Capitol Hill or in service to the commander in chief, Lewis has some advice: First, strengthen your writing skills. “Convince them you’re the best candidate of all” with your written statements, he said. Second, get good recommendations. Lewis’s came from Sen. Harkin and from Dr. Frances Marquez, a faculty member in the Department of Government and History who has over 20 years of experience in the political arena. It also helps that Lewis continued his co-curricular involvement during his undergraduate years, serving as the public relations officer for the Student Body Government, becoming a student ambassador for the Office of Admissions, writing for The Buff and Blue, and participating in a mock trial course taught by Gallaudet faculty and a local attorney.

One thing students should not worry about is accommodation. Career Consultant Daniel Ve is in touch with Lewis’s supervisor, always ready to advise on accessibility. The White House provides an interpreter for Lewis during staff meetings and other situations when he requests one. Most of the time, however, he can leverage email, pagers, basic ASL, and other means to take care of his communication needs.

Looking toward the rest of the semester and onward to graduation this May, Lewis already has plans. He hopes to leave his mark at the Office of Presidential Correspondence by helping to develop an operations manual that interns can follow for years to come.

His next steps may involve participating in Public Allies, a selective leadership training program for minorities–and law school. Lewis is already eyeing the University of California, Los Angeles, feeling a pull toward the West Coast. The next step would not surprise anyone. Once he obtains his J.D., Lewis plans to run for public office.
–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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