By: Clarissa Shah
As a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation alumna, I am proud to support CBCF’s #GiveUsA5 campaign. The $5 dollar fundraising initiative will support the CBCF’s efforts to one-day place an intern or fellow in all 535 congressional member offices.
When people learn that in 2007 I served as a CBCF congressional intern for a man who would ultimately become lauded as one of the most successful presidents of the United States, they often ask if being his intern ever made me nervous. “Yes” is the answer, but not for the reasons most would assume. Working in then-Senator Obama’s office evoked a sense of pride, not nerves; my senator embodied hope and the urgency of change. The nerves came when I was forced outside of my comfort zone and asked to use my then-elementary-level Chinese practically—to converse with Mandarin speakers visiting and calling Senator Obama’s office. “Clarissa, we have a Chinese-speaking constituent on the phone. Are you available to speak with them? They are on hold for you.”
I remember walking to the desk and staring at the phone that held the Mandarin-speaking constituent. I made myself recall the classroom dialogues that highlighted the appropriate Chinese words and phrases to use on the telephone. “Why in the world did my textbook not have a dialogue involving an internship on Capitol Hill?” I asked myself. “Wei”, or “hello”, I nervously answered. I listened to the constituent on the other end and, after a few moments, uttered a phrase embraced by Chinese language students everywhere: “Man dianr”, or, “A little slower, please.” Although at the very beginning of my journey as a Chinese language student, the moment I answered this particular call during my CBCF internship was pivotal, shaping my approach to Chinese language studies and, ultimately, my career. You see, although I did not know every single word spoken by the constituent, I became determined to engage with constituents and represent my senator in the most meaningful way. Mandarin words that I did not know, I wrote down and looked up when I got home. I learned to anticipate the questions I might receive and practice how I might answer them in Mandarin. In essence, I learned during my summer as a 19-year-old CBCF intern the true importance of resolved professional commitment—even if that commitment requires the use of a newly learned foreign language.
My time as a CBCF intern was invaluable and an experience I have cherished and carried with me everywhere from my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, to Shanghai. By virtue of being on Capitol Hill, a CBCF intern interacts with people from all walks of life and with varying passions. The program underscores the notion that having the ability to work and communicate with people of diverse backgrounds is a key to success. For this reason, the CBCF Internship Program is of the utmost importance to not only the African-American community, but also to general society—interpersonal relationships are championed above all else.
Almost a decade later, I regularly use Mandarin in my job as a lawyer for a multinational corporation. Each time I pick up the phone for a call in Mandarin, I cannot help but think of my summer as a CBCF intern. Although the nerves were dismissed long ago, I remain thankful for the CBCF internship pushing me outside of my comfort zone. Supporting CBCF through the #GiveUsA5 campaign is the very least I can do. I encourage you to do same.
The author of this post, Clarissa Shah, served as a congressional intern for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007. She graduated from Colgate University with a B.A. in Chinese Languages and Literature in 2010. Three years later she earned a J.D. and M.A. East Asian Studies: Chinese Language and History from Washington University in St. Louis. Clarissa now works as a lawyer for Emerson.