The Hills We Climb To See The World: My SPS Internship

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Thursday, August 16, 2018


Samuel Borer

Disclaimer: All thoughts are my own.

Flying away from Washington D.C., my mind turned to a quote from one of my favorite short poems, A Dream Within A Dream, in which Edgar Allen Poe said "It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream." It is so striking to me; there is so much truth in such few words. This past summer was a dream. While I wasn't able to write blog postings during the midst of the summer activities due to my work placement, I hope to now share some thoughts and observations on my experience.

The Beginning

In my military unit, we learn about Bruce Tuckman's stages of group development. Going through the rigorous military training, I saw these stages play out again and again. When you have a group of people coming from different backgrounds together, trying to fulfill a common goal, they seem to always fall into this development. The first stage is forming; where the group agrees on the goal and begins to work on the solution, usually independently. The group is becoming oriented to not only the task, but also the other group members. The second stage is storming; where the group begins to sort itself into roles and it is not uncommon for conflict to arise. Much like growing pains, everyone is trying to understand what role they play, which can bring about disagreements and personality clashes. The third stage is norming; where everyone realigns with the group's goal and disagreements are settled for the common good. This is where people become the most accepting of the group members in the spirit of cooperation. Finally, they enter the performing stage; where the group has found its groove and there is a high level of performance and success.

Countless times I have been involved in groups where I watched us pass each one of these stages like clockwork. When I arrived in D.C. to meet the 14 other interns, this is what I was expecting to find. I knew some of the interns prior to the internship because we had been serving on the SPS National Council together that year. One of my dearest friends Daniel Morales was even going to be my roommate for the entire summer. Everyone was coming from different areas in the country, with different experiences, cultures, and personalities. There were non-traditional students, military veterans, outdoorsy people, city folk, Southerns, Northerns, and everything in between. Our group of interns was as diverse as it was excited. I remember feeling like you could have cut out a cube of concentrated enthusiasm from the air in the conference room where we had orientation. Not only were we excited to spend our summers at amazing placement sites, but also at the opportunity to explore all that our Nation's Capital has to offer. It was during the first night following orientation that I knew our group of interns was going to break Tuckman's model. Our apartments were a short walk away from the National Mall, so we went on a night walk around the monuments. Everyone seemed to integrate well, I remember waiting for the shoe to drop and our group to experience significant conflict. It never did.

On The Hill With Giants

I was able to spend my summer as a legislative intern for Senator Tammy Duckworth, specializing in science and environmental policy. It was an eye-opening experience and I was able to gain so much perspective on the legislative process in general. As an intern in a member's office, the tasks you do are very different from what you would do if you were in a Committee office (like the one my comrade Sarah Monk was in). Personal offices deal with constituents of that congressional member, while committee offices deal with the agenda of that specific committee. Working with constituents is one of the toughest, but most rewarding, experiences you can get working for Congress. Seldom will you be closer to literal process of democracy. Senator Duckworth was elected by the great citizens of Illinois and so we had a responsibility to hear from those same citizens. When they call, write a letter, or send an email, they are engaging in the political process and our office took that very seriously. As interns, you are "on the front lines", answering phone calls, listening and logging the opinions of the voters, sorting mail we receive, and categorizing everything. From a science standpoint, I was amazed at how efficiently the office took in massive amounts of data and sorted everything appropriately so that it could be handled by the small team of staffers we consisted of. Like a sequence of data filters, every bit of information always found where it was supposed to go.

Some of the most meaningful experiences I had happened outside the specific constituent work, when I was able to work on legislative tasks. I worked with two amazing staffers who were serving as Legislative Assistants, managing Senator Duckworth's science, energy, and environment portfolio. Senator Duckworth serves on several committee's and subcommittee's related to these areas and so the workload was always high. I was able to help the staffers in many ways, each of them providing me an immense learning opportunity. I performed deep dives researching specific topics we needed for various legislative reasons. One quickly becomes a master of internet resources, able to find that one quote in that one 350 page government report from 8 years ago. It was not uncommon for Eric to come by and say something like, "I need to know more about how Brazilian biofuel exports could affect Illinois farmers", and then I would be off to the races. I analyzed legislation that was in our committee and helped draft bill recommendations, which provided crucial information and context to the Senator, ensuring she makes the most informed decision when she decided on how to vote on legislation. I attended hearings and briefings and wrote memorandums for staffers. I also wrote form letters that would eventually be sent as responses to constituent communication. 

However, the most impactful aspects of working for Congress was simply being in the atmosphere. It is not something I find easily put in words. There is a sense that you are in the middle of all these happenings, surrounded by giants. You pass Senators in the hallway, you can go and sit in the Senate gallery and watch floor debates, you can attend hearings and witness our government work in front of your very eyes. Everyday I walked from the metro station across the back porch of the US Capital. I stood on the stairs that President Obama used when he left his life as a private citizen to walk out of the Capital building for his presidential inauguration. I got the chance to attend a lecture by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the very courtroom that legalized same-sex marriage. Those are the experience that made my summer more meaningful than any that came before it. 

The District

Living in D.C. during the summer can be summed up in one word: humidity. The district was built on a swamp and I think that angered the swamp so it fights back by making it as miserably hot and humid as possible. For those of us who had to wear suits to work everyday, it was like jumping into a swimpool and praying not to get your suit wet. However, the activities available around D.C. are as rewarding as they are plentiful. Looking back over the nine weeks I spent there, I am amazed at how we didn't burn out from all the events we packed into our summer. Since the interns were meshing so well, we did everything together. Whether it was going to Jazz in the Garden on Friday nights, trying to get around to the Smithsonian's 19 museums, or on an endless quest for the best food and brunch places, there was never a dull moment. Coming from an undergraduate institution that is based in an area that one could reasonable mistake for a national forest, living in the city was a welcome change. Cities have this amazing feeling of being close to so many people, but yet independent at the same time. Exploring all the amazing nooks and crannies with all of my friends was some of the most fun I have ever had. 

My Raft

A group of sea otters is often called a raft, because of the way that sea otters will hold each other's hands in order to ensure that the group stays together. My raft was comprised of some unbelievable human beings who I have no doubt are going to go on to live magnificient lives. Every now and then I become more aware of how influential people are to the quality of your experiences. This summer was amazing because of the people I got to enjoy it with and the time we got to spend together. They were the medium through which all the joy propagated. I want to take a moment and thank them, so I apologize to all the other readers that have no context for these thanks. 

First, to Daniel; thank you so much for being such an amazing roommate. Whether we were grabbing burgers and milkshakes at BTS or just hanging out in our room playing Rocket League, you were always someone I could count on for some wisdom, support, a weird comment that made no sense, or a solo rap performance. To Stephanie and Sarah; thanks for making 502 the best flat there was. Stephanie, I will cherish our conversations and I will forever miss you cooking and baking amazing food that I could mooch off of. Sarah, I am so fortunate to have you as my Mather buddy and share my Capital Hill experiences with. To Elon; you have to be one of the funniest, most authentic, bad-ass woman I have ever met. I am so glad I got to share the summer with you and I will walk my butt down to NC anytime if it means you will make me any of your vegan food. To Brigette; you are such an unabashed free spirit. Thank you for pushing this old man to get out there and just being an all-around energy provider for our group. To Krystina; I don't think any of the other interns would disagree if I said you were by-far the hardest working intern of our group. First of all, shame on you for making us look bad. However, everytime we talked I felt like you were able to clear my vision and see a better perspective, and for that I am especially grateful. I cannot wait to see all of the unbelievable things you are going to do throughout your career. To Jesus; you showed me the power of will and determination this summer. You never complained about your work load and you always greeted everyone with a smile. You are an example to which I strive to be more like. To Collin; you can always make me laugh without fail. Sometimes with you, sometimes at you, but all the times joyfully. I hope you never loose that playful side of your soul. To Michael; it was an honor to be an observer to your growth throughout the summer. To watch you see your path more clearly and to feel your passion and excitement was infectious. I am so excited to follow your amazing work as you blaze this path for yourself. To Nathan; I just can not tell you how much I enjoyed all of our political conversations. I am so glad you are pursuing this path because you bring such depth and perspective, I am so glad I got to talk to you and hear your thoughts. To Mikayla; thank you for always adding that overflowing level of excitement that you bring to everything you do. You have this amazing ability to vibrate an entire room and get everyone enthusiastic about what is in front of them. To Kristen; I am so fortunate to have met you and witnessed the brand of quiet kindness that you radiate. No matter how crazy things got, you were always right there with your steady flow of calm joy to make everyone feel better. To Amanda; you are probably the coolest person I know. Your presence and energy adds something to a group that is wholly yours. This spark of yours is a unique gift that I hope everyone gets to experience someday. Finally, to Phoebe; I am not quite sure what to say. To be around you is a blessing I never deserved. You bring out the best in everyone you encounter and those lucky enough to connect with you are all the better for it. Thank you for giving me the most amazing summer of my life, and here is to many more.

Each of these 14 people made the summer worth it. And if you are reading this blog because you are thinking about being an SPS intern, or maybe you are going to be an intern in the near future, then I would emphasize this point above all. Any experience you have is just dust without people to breathe life into it. As you embark on your own SPS summer internship, I emplore you to connect with your fellow interns. In 50 years, I will still remember and cherish these humans. Don't miss out on the opportunity.

There's not a word yet, for old friends who've just met.

Jim Henson



I was incredibly fortunate and it is the work of so many people that afforded me the opportunity to spend my summer working for the United States Senate. First, I want to thank Dr. John Mather, without whom this position wouldn't even be a possibility. It takes a special kind of person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, only to then use the prize money to provide opportunities for students to engage in the political process. Dr. Mather is so much more and I am so glad I was able to meet him and express my gratitude for his uncharacteristic kindness. I want to thank Jennifer and Bethany from AIP; I am so fortunate that you saw to give me this opportunity, but I am even more fortunate that it allowed me to get to know you both. Thank you for your wisdom and guidance throughout this process, it made all the difference. Lastly, I cannot begin to express my endless love for the amazing men and women that make up the SPS National Office. Everyday they work to improve the student experience for physics students across the country. Everyone is shocked when they find out that SPS is run by less than 10 people. The work they do affects thousands of students each year, and as someone who has been profoundly impacted by their work, thank you. 

Samuel Borer