My Summer Internship in Washington D.C. and its Valuable Lessons

Samuel Elzinga on the Dome of the Capitol

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to intern for Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (AZ-08). Interning with her was a fabulous experience, and my time out in Washington, D.C. taught me not only how congressional offices functioned in our nation’s capital, but how to remain resilient in times of uncertainty and challenges. I initially left for Washington D.C. in the beginning of June with the anticipation of interning with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Due to my activities at the United Nations with focus on sustainable mountain development and especially in mountain countries of Central Asia, I was extended a conditional offer to intern with them back in December of 2018, and immediately accepted. Unfortunately, due to circumstances outside my control, I arrived in Washington D.C. without my security clearance fully processed, and because of the opaque and slow-moving bureaucracy of the U.S. State Department’s clearance process, I did not know if I would get my clearance in time to intern.

(L) Samuel in the Library of Congress, (R) Samuel below the Apotheosis of George Washington in the Capitol

I would never receive word on my security clearance. Many factors go into giving someone a security clearance, and internships have a very short window to process them in time. This was, of course, a huge blow to my summer plans, as I had turned down opportunities at Cambridge University and other think tanks this summer and instead moved to Washington, D.C. However, after waiting until June 20th, 2019, with the guidance of Dr. Baktybek Abdrisaev, my mentor and a faculty at Utah Valley University, I reached out to some professional contacts, I had in the office of U.S. House Representative John Curtis (UT-03) to see if they could help with the clearance. Initially, they advocated on my behalf to the U.S. Department of State to see if that could expedite the process. When that did not work, Congressman Curtis sought to help me find a different internship in D.C. His staff sent urgent messages to offices of other members of the U.S. House of Representatives and several of them immediately positively responded without asking any security clearances.  I was able then to check first which members had any connections to Central Asian countries through their committee responsibilities: It allowed me to land an internship with Congresswoman Lesko of Arizona, who oversees the partnership of the Arizona National Guard with the military of Kazakhstan, and this twist of fate was one of the biggest blessings I had in my academic career.

It just so happened at the time I began with Congresswoman Lesko, that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. Having interned with Congressman Chris Stewart (UT-02) before and specializing in national security and defense policy, I was familiar with the process of getting the NDAA passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The NDAA was one of the largest bills passed that summer, and one of the most controversial as well. Because of this, a lot of attention was given to ensuring Congresswoman Lesko knew the ins and outs of the bill. For this, I worked very closely with the legislative staff to catalogue each amendment and made sure stakeholders’ interests were documented.

Samuel Elzinga (L) with Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R) at an intern appreciation event

Congresswoman Lesko’s districts hosts a very large population of ethnic Armenians, and there were many amendments to the bill relating to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The staff knew I was knowledgeable in Central Asian security issues and asked me to help provide vote recommendations on these amendments that were critical to our security relations in the Caucasus. Though the Caucasus is not the same as Central Asia, I was still able to provide an extra level of expertise as it pertained to these issues. I was also able to draft correspondence to the Adjutant General of the Arizona National Guard commending his units on a successful completion of joint exercise between the Arizona National Guard and the Kazakh military. This internship, though was not what I expected for the summer, was just as fulfilling as any other internship. I was able to work on pressing issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia, all while making a noticeable impact when providing vote recommendations on national security issues. Despite the summer starting off a little rougher than expected, I will always look back on this internship with nostalgia and pride for the work I did.

Samuel Elzinga, President, Utah International Mountain Forum