Audrey Henson brings diversity to Capitol Hill with her nonprofit organization College to Congress
Every year thousands of students descend on Capitol Hill for rite-of- passage unpaid internships to build their resumes, make connections and get a taste for the world of politics they may have previously only known about from textbooks.Audrey Henson, 27, a Texas native from a single parent home, worked on the Hill after her junior year at the University of South Florida, but was only able to swing rent and day-to-day expenses by taking out student loans and working two jobs on nights and weekends.“The doors didn’t open easily,” she says.
After returning to Washington for another unpaid position upon graduation, she became concerned by the lack of diversity among her peers.“They are from this upper class, very highly educated world … but Congress is here to represent America and right now it is not reflecting how America looks,” Henson says about what sparked the creation of her bipartisan nonprofit College to Congress (C2C). She recognized that there were other organizations helping students obtain Hill internships, but selection criteria was based on either gender or race, not socioeconomic status, which she believes is the biggest barrier to entry. Setting out to change the pattern, Henson started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the cause.The nonprofit’s mission was so personal to her social network, many of whom she had met on the Hill, that donations streamed in faster than anticipated. Once the word was out, applications rolled in too. Henson’s criteria requires that students be Pell Grant eligible and have a 3.0 GPA or higher. Each selected student gets $10,000 to cover eight weeks of rent, food, transportation and appropriate work attire over the course of their internship. Henson takes a comprehensive hands-on approach throughout the program,debriefing students weekly, providing training to navigate life on the Hill and offering advice on budgeting and etiquette.They are also paired with mentors from the other side of the aisle to expand their horizons.
On night one, Henson took C2C’s inaugural summer class (three Democrats and three Republicans) to a small Mexican restaurant on the Hill, hoping its casual atmosphere might ease first day jitters.When they spotted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch all formalities dissipated and the wonky bunch plotted an introduction. Henson made her move as he stood to leave, introducing herself and the bright-eyed students. Jaws dropped when the conservative Republican told them that the friend he was having dinner with there was a Democrat with whom he had interned 30 years ago. In that moment Henson’s mission became crystal clear.The diverse group of young people in front of her represented the future of the country. As long as they have a seat at the table, they have the power to humanize the political process, something the divisive nation needs now more than ever.“We don’t want them to just say,‘Oh, you have different views and I respect that.‘We want them to say,‘Oh, you think this way because of your mom and brother … and that’s why you approach welfare reform the way you do.’”
After Gorsuch walked out, she turned to the inspired students and joked,“Just so you guys know, it’s all downhill from here.”
This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Washington Life Magazine.