December 8, 2021
By Holly Hexter
Matt Tessema is no stranger to Washington, D.C. The 2021 Thomas R. Wolanin intern grew up in the metropolitan D.C. area before entering Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). But he says he’s grateful for the internship on Capitol Hill that already — just over four months in — has overturned his perceptions and has clarified his own personal and professional goals.
The TRIO alumnus is “ready to pay it forward” after receiving support to enter and graduate from college and sees his congressional internship as an important steppingstone. He’s now working on the House Education and Labor Committee.
“I wanted an experience on the Hill. A lot of what I want to do with my law degree, with my future, aligns with being a voice for underrepresented people. And I always thought of policy or the legislative process as an avenue for me to do that. Coming here as a low-income, first-generation student — usually, these places on the Hill are not for people who come from backgrounds like mine,” Tessema says. The son of Ethiopian immigrants took part in Student Support Services at VCU.
He’s applying to law school but now sees his aspirations through a different lens. The significant role played by legislative aides in shaping public policy has impressed him. “I wasn’t aware of how much change I could make here without being an elected member. I’m learning that one day I can be in a position to make a difference.”
[COE is currently accepting applications for the 2022 Wolanin internship. Apply here before Friday, January 14.]
When he isn’t working on the Hill or studying for the LSAT, Tessema loves sports, calls himself an avid reader, and is also interested in business, finance, and entrepreneurship. He coached students on financial literacy at VCU, where he founded the college’s Pre-Law Society, started a social media app, led voter registration drives, and mentored elementary and middle schoolers in the Richmond Public Schools. He was a journalism major who also studied refugee health, took part in summer law programs, and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in the U.K. (This latter experience has been deferred because of the pandemic).
His advice for those who want to intern on Capitol Hill? Be open-minded and network, network, network. “I hope you come ready and prepared to be a social butterfly because that’s what is going to make it worth it for you,” Tessema says. He’s been surprised by the willingness of congressional aides to share professional advice over coffee or lunch.
Tessema emerged through a nationwide competition for the Thomas R. Wolanin Internship, named in honor of the champion of financial aid and college access. The program, a paid 3-to-4-month internship at COE and on Capitol Hill, makes it possible for individuals who are first in their families to graduate from college to observe and participate in the federal policymaking process.