Jessie Hainley and Diego Hinojosa, two young Brownsvillians who landed summer internships with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office, say the experience was rewarding and eye-opening.

Hainley, who graduated salutatorian last year from Saint Joseph Academy and is now a business honors sophomore at Texas A&M, said she thought it would be an amazing experience and so jumped at the chance to apply, thinking politics or government could be a career path some day.

“I just kind of took it and ran with it,” Hainley said.

She started the internship virtually from home in June due to the pandemic, but then moved to Washington D.C. in July when congressional offices reopened, working in Vela’s office until the end of July. Interns and regular staff worked on a staggered schedule so the office was never too crowded on any given day. Hainley said she was assigned a lot of project-based work, which she enjoyed. Among the tasks was helping draft a resolution honoring military families disproportionately affected by COVID-19

“That was the coolest thing that I did for sure,” Hainley said. “I really learned a lot from it. I was able to do a lot of research on it, and I had never done much research on military families or anything, and that was just really awesome.”

“And then I wrote on a lot of committee hearings, which was also super fun,” Hainley said. “One of the bigger ones that I wrote notes for was the big tech committee hearing. That was a really high-profile hearing. I also just did a lot of research for the office on certain topics.

“This is my first internship that I’ve ever done. I learned so much just from being in the office. All of the people who worked in the office were such great role models and mentors. They showed me that I can actually get things done. I’ve always known that I’m competent but I’ve never put it to work in a real office before.”

In fact, that was the most valuable thing about the experience: Taking what she’s learned in school and applying it to real life in a way that helps bring about meaningful change, she said.

Hainley said the work felt particularly important against the backdrop of the current crises. She said she’s not sure if she’ll choose a career in politics or government, though she’s considering law school, and hasn’t made up her mind yet on a second major at Texas A&M.

“I wouldn’t say that I have a specific career plan at the moment,” Hainley said.

She said the internship was the highlight of what has otherwise been a year full of upheaval, with her college freshman year being canceled.

“This office did such a great job helping us have the most normal internship experience as possible,” Hainley said. “It was just an amazing experience and the fact that it wasn’t canceled, the fact that they were still open to us being there and learning and being so hands on — I learned so much this summer, not only within my internship but also about myself. I can’t say enough good things about it.”

Diego Hinojosa, a 2019 graduate of Veterans Memorial Early College High School now in his sophomore year at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he’s studying political science, has done his entire internship remotely from Brownsville. Hinojosa is working for Vela’s office tentatively until the end of August while he looks for a congressional campaign to take him on.

He landed the internship before the pandemic, so it turned out differently than he expected, though that “was not such a bad thing,” Hinojosa said.

“I got to really be involved in the legislative process and I even got to work on some bills that the congressman introduced, so overall I thought it wasn’t what was planned but I got a really good look at what a legislative process is like and what a congressional office is like,” he said.

Hinojosa, who is interested in a career in politics/government, also participated in staff calls and contacted constituents who needed to discuss issues or legislation.

“A lot of what it did was it showed me that this is not such a scary process, that the people that work in Congress and the people that work in government, they’re not too far from you and I. … It’s not something that there’s a huge high bar that you need to get to,” he said. “You can understand the law and you can understand legislation and you can understand the legislative process if you work hard enough and if you really want to learn.”

Hinojosa said everyone in Vela’s office was friendly and understanding and eager to show “how a congressional office really works,” demystifying the workings of government to some degree and making it seem like a feasible potential career path.

“It’s not something that’s only for the elite,” he said. “Any regular high-schooler that can apply and get into an internship should be able to find themselves in an environment where they can learn and where they can participate in our government. I think that’s a great thing.”

Hinojosa said he witnessed Vela and his staff working hard to help constituents deal with the pandemic and that it’s been a pleasure to be a part of it. If he can’t find a position with a congressional campaign then he’ll probably go to work for the Texas Democratic Party, Hinojosa said.

“I’m just going to play it out and see where it goes,” he said. “I don’t have a definite plan. But so far I’m enjoying my new career path into politics and into government.”

Vela said the internships are not only integral to the functioning of his office but are “also for the professional development of many of the students I host every spring, summer and fall semesters.”

He said many students leverage the internship experience to later land full-time jobs in Congress, and that all his senior staff started out as interns of fellows on Capitol Hill.

“Internships are important, and I refused to let this pandemic get in the way of what normally would have been an exciting and adventurous opportunity,” Vela said.

“With a little bit of planning and a lot of social distancing and tele-working, Jessie and Diego along with four other interns had the opportunity to safely learn about D.C., while researching policies and programs to help provide resources to South Texas as we continued to fight the pandemic. Though probably not what they expected, I hope they learned plenty, and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish in the future.”