News: EIA Major Abigail Burke Makes the Most of Federal Jackets Internship

Abigail Burke

Posted November 23, 2020

The Federal Jackets Fellowship is a prestigious program that gives Georgia Institute of Technology students interested in public service the opportunity to intern for federal legislators and agencies in Washington, D.C. while providing a stipend to assist with living expenses.

Abby Burke, a fourth-year student in the Ivan Allen College majoring in economics and international affairs (EIA) and a member of the most recent class of interns, spent her summer working for the office of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta.

Burke’s experience was anything but typical, as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement upended daily life for many Americans throughout the summer. Burke took time to share her most valuable experiences and lessons from the internship, as well as lighter observations, such as the threat of her dog chowing down on federal government property.

What made you interested in the Federal Jackets program and working in government?

I’ve loved social sciences like history, government, and economics since high school, and I’ve always followed the news and current events closely. I think that background, along with a strong desire to work in a job that can positively impact people’s lives, has translated naturally into an interest in working in government. The fast-paced, constantly changing nature of jobs on the Hill is also exciting to me — I’d certainly never get bored. 

Most government internships are unpaid, which can make them quite prohibitive to most college students who can’t afford the cost of living in D.C. on their own. Without the Federal Jackets Fellowship, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to take an internship in D.C. The funding and support they provided was essential to my entire internship experience, and I am very grateful. 

What were your main duties and responsibilities in the fellowship? 

In Congressman Lewis’ office, my responsibilities were mainly divided into two sections: legislative work and constituent services. I helped legislative staff with policy research on a range of topics, from police reform to homelessness to online disinformation. I also attended briefings and hearings, wrote policy memos, and provided staff with daily news updates on critical topics. On the constituent services side, the two other interns and I listened to, read, and answered hundreds of constituent phone calls and emails a week. 

Does a particular experience (talking to a constituent, preparing something for Rep. Lewis or another staffer) stand out to you in particular?

It’s hard to pick just one moment that stood out. Every day, there would be something that reminded me just how incredibly honored I was to be working for Congressman Lewis. While I loved working on legislation, the most insightful and touching moments of the job came from speaking with constituents on the phone and hearing the absolute reverence that so many people held for Congressman Lewis. 

Many times, people would call and share their memories of the civil rights movement, their interactions with Congressman Lewis, or how he changed their lives. My most memorable phone call was with a man who was part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee while Congressman Lewis served as its chairman. We ended up speaking for almost an hour about his memories and the danger and violence he faced as a young man. Every phone call was a reminder of the remarkable, tremendous life and character of John Lewis.

Rep. Lewis’ death inspired an outpouring of tributes and remembrances from around the country. What was it like seeing that?

The weeks following his death were an extremely emotional time, and I remember feeling overwhelmed by everything. The staff in the office were very close with the Congressman, and seeing their pain was heartbreaking. Additionally, while everyone was trying to grieve, they also had to worry about the transition of the office and constituent services. The outpouring of tributes was a really moving reminder during that rough period of everything that Congressman Lewis had achieved and the long, full life he lived. 

Serving in this position has surely given you a pretty unique perspective on the political process. What was it like experiencing the election through that lens?

One of my favorite quotes by Congressman Lewis (a quote also used by Vice President-Elect Harris to open her acceptance speech last week) is, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” One of the biggest things I took away from my experience in Congressman Lewis’ office is that we cannot be complacent with the state of our country. We should never take our democracy for granted, and we must constantly work to hold our nation to its highest ideals. 

My internship encouraged me to get more involved in the political process in other ways, and I decided to become a poll worker ahead of the general election because I knew the pandemic had created a serious demand for younger workers. Under the leadership of my friend and fellow Georgia Tech student Sam Ellis, I ended up serving as assistant manager for the McCamish Pavilion voting location, which was one of the first fully student-run precincts in the country.

Do you have plans to work in government following graduation?

Yes, I hope to! I’ll be spending my last semester at Georgia Tech interning for the Department of State, and I plan to either go on to graduate school or find a job in the government or non-profit sector after that. 

You served during the height of the BLM protests. What was that like and what did you learn from that experience?

Because of Congressman Lewis’ lifetime of leadership in civil rights, our office received an especially large influx of phone calls and emails during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. I witnessed a lot of the raw pain and frustration that so many people felt because a significant part of my job was listening to and reading correspondence. I also attended many Congressional hearings on police reform and town halls led by activists in the BLM movement.

I learned a lot about the importance of using protests and activism in conjunction with policy and the political process. As someone who has always been interested in politics on a national level, the experience encouraged me to focus on the importance of local elected officials like mayors, district attorneys, and police review boards. These positions are critical in addressing police misconduct, but voter turnout for local races like these is normally very low. 

Were there any unexpectedly tricky parts of the internship?

I’m mostly joking, but the hardest task was probably keeping track of the small security key that came with my government laptop. I needed it any time I had to log on for work, and I was always scared I’d lose it under a couch cushion or my dog would eat it.

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Rebecca Keane

Director of Communications