by Chenelle Hammonds, intern in the University of Houston Office of Governmental Relations
It’s been one week since the 85th Legislature has commenced, although for GCSW interns like myself our work began a while ago. Prior to heading to Austin we attended a series of legislative seminars to prepare us for our work in Austin and get us acclimated to the Legislature. We went over several topics and concepts, including advocacy, dinner etiquette, political ideology, and the culture of the Texas legislature and its members. It was a pretty intense three-week period and by the end I felt that my brain was on overload. However, I really appreciated Dr. Pritzker making sure that the interns were informed and fully prepared to take on their duties in the Capitol. As an out-of-state student who has only lived in this state for a year, I especially appreciated the seminars as I learned so much about Texas government and how the legislative body here operates.
There are 15 students participating in the GCSW Austin Legislative Internship Program. Three students are placed in offices, one student will be placed in the House Committee on County Affairs, and the rest will be members of the Legislative Study Group (LSG) led by Rep. Garnet Coleman, with the exception of myself. I was placed in the UH Office of Governmental Relations, and I am the first GCSW student to intern in Austin with this position, which is pretty nerve-wracking but also exciting. There is no “alum” to tell me about their experiences working in the specific position I was placed in, so at first I was a little unsure of what to expect.
Nevertheless, my experience working in the Governmental Relations office has been great. There are a total of three people in my office, including myself. I work directly with Jason Smith, UH Vice Chancellor for Governmental and Community Relations and Deidra Garcia, who is the Assistant Vice Chancellor. I like this setup, as I feel that I am able to establish a personal relationship with my bosses. A lot of my work so far has consisted of scheduling meetings to meet with legislators and tracking bills that relate to higher education policy as they are filed. There are not many bills that have been filed yet, and it seems that not much is happening in the Capitol currently. Both chambers adjourned after only three days of meeting last week, and I believe another break is to be expected this week for the Presidential Inauguration. Meeting with legislators has been an awesome experience. The first day that the Legislature commenced was akin to a huge mansion housewarming party. Jason, Deidra and I visited several representatives and senator’s offices and spoke with members, staff, and their families and, of course, we were offered tons of food. It was nice to see that camaraderie still exists in politics—at least on the first day of session. (We’ll see how long that lasts.)
On Thursday, just three days into session, I got to attend an interview event with the Texas Tribune and UH System Chancellor Renu Khator. Just two days prior I was sitting in a conference call with my two bosses helping prepare the Chancellor for her interview. She did a PHENOMENAL job and I admired the poise and class she exuded throughout the interview even when thrown curve balls by the journalist. After the interview Jason, Deidra, Chancellor Khator, and I went to a few legislators’ offices to discuss bills related to higher education and the legislative agenda for this upcoming session. It was really amazing to be able to sit in these meetings next to our University’s top leaders and hear the discussions and political language used, while also getting familiar with some of the issues the UH system is facing this session. For starters, the recent announcement of a very tight state budget has every public college and university leader biting their nails. It made me proud to see legislators give their attention to the success of the UH-System. In this, I also realized that alliances form in the legislature far beyond ideological lines. I was surprised to learn of the extraordinary coalition formed between Democrat and Republican members of the legislature who are alumni of UH or whose constituency is within the city of Houston—at least as it relates to higher education bills.
I will admit, however, that walking around the Capitol with Chancellor Khator, the Vice Chancellor, and the Assistant Vice Chancellor was quite intimidating. My two bosses have worked several years in the Capitol and seem to know just about everyone, and the title of Chancellor speaks for itself. I found myself shying away in meetings sometimes… like is it okay for an intern to be here? Nevertheless, Jason assured me that he wanted me to hear and see everything that this work entails. At one of our meetings, newly-elected Senator Borris Miles stopped to ask me if I understood what was being discussed, and asked me about my career aspirations. This made me feel included in the meeting, and after this, my “I’m just the intern” complex began to chip away. During lunch later in the day, Jason explained to me any concepts or bill language that I was having trouble understanding, which I really appreciated.
All in all, I would say my first week at the Capitol was a success. I thoroughly look forward to seeing what else is in store for me. =)