Months ago, I met an 85-ish-year-old veteran in a Starbucks in Chattanooga. I was supposed to be studying for midterms, but I got caught up in his war stories and ended up listening for over two hours. He told me he still had shrapnel in his legs from being bombed. He didn’t have access to a Veterans’ Hospital, so instead of seeking treatment he could in no way afford elsewhere, he would take a razor blade and cut out the bits of metal himself. He told me about crouching behind barricades for days, waiting to be targeted by missiles, and when they finally came, watching his friends lose life and limb before his eyes. When he first returned to the States, at the sound of loud noises, he would panic and instinctively fall to one knee, his arms tensed into position, holding an invisible firearm. His eyes filled with tears when he spoke of his wife dying from cancer at a young age; he said, “I know no one is perfect, but she was as close as it comes.” This veteran had unwittingly been a mentor to me. I am now in DC interning at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and that Starbucks vet gives me the determination to serve veterans and their families with respect and diligence each day.
About 20,000 summer interns go to DC each year. Their summers’ success can easily be measured by the impressiveness of the line on their resume and the tone of their letter of recommendation. However, the most important thing to gain from an internship is a network. Gaining an internship is the easy part; making it worth your while is an entirely different story that depends completely on your community-building skills.
You must cultivate the habit of making every new person you meet a sort of mentor by showing honest interest in his or her life. If you do this, your network will grow, giving you extraordinary opportunities. Congressman Trent Kelly, a veteran himself, emphasized to me that a great way to find out what you want to spend your life doing is to find mentors. Though you should try and find one consistent person to mentor you, anyone you meet can be a mentor, whether they are a co-worker, sibling, or person you meet on the Metro (or in a Starbucks).
An important thing to note is that you should look for mentors in lots of career fields. You never know where you will end up in life, and if you limit the people you are getting to know to the ones in your current field, you will regret it. The Chief Information Officer for the Department of Energy told me that if you think you have an answer for “what your five-year plan is,” you’re kind of dumb.
As far as I can tell, I am not going to spend my life working for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but I wouldn’t trade my internship here for anything. I have met Congress members from all over the U.S., journalists from Mali, editors who never sleep, producers who also never sleep, environmentalists who are literally trying to save the world, and Uber drivers who find purpose in strangers. Each of these people offered me a wealth of knowledge; however, it was the Starbucks vet who was my first mentor in this Veterans’ Affairs journey. I am eager to see where all the lives I have encountered and the lessons I am learning will lead me, and I wait for the day when I can finally take my turn in guiding those like me.