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Marneet Lewis goes to Washington
Photos and Story by Abe Proctor
Students have graduated from Portland Community College and gone on to momentous things, but rarely has it happened as quickly as it has for Marneet Lewis. The 2008 graduate from the Cascade Campus on North Killingworth Street is serving as an intern in U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (Mass.) office for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) in Washington, D.C.
Lewis’ selection as a community college student is rare – she is one of only eight students selected for the summer congressional internship program and the only community college student in a very competitive field of candidates.
Another wrinkle made her appointment even more unusual – most interns at the time of their selection are in their sophomore or junior years of college and plan on returning to finish their four-year degree. Lewis, on the other hand, was preparing to graduate from PCC and would be starting at a different school after her internship. Following her initial phone interview, program officials had to check to see if there was any language in the program’s charter that would prohibit a prospective graduating community college student from participating. There was no such language, and Lewis is now on the job in Washington.
“It is phenomenal,” she said of her D.C. experience. “I’m having the time of my life.”
Lewis and her fellow interns are housed at George Washington University, just a short distance from the National Mall. She gets around on foot and on the Metro, D.C.’s subway system (“It’s amazing!” she said). Her days are spent doing the business of the HELP committee, which involves everything from reading and answering constituents’ mail, speaking with them on the phone, attending committee hearings, obtaining signatures (often from high-ranking senators, she said), running errands and keeping abreast of political news by watching a bank of televisions constantly tuned to C-SPAN, CNN and the House and Senate floors.
The culture of Washington, she said, is as exciting as it is demanding.
“I appreciate every morning seeing all these young interns, all of them dressed to the nines and excited about working in D.C.,” she said. “We have a great sense of community. And the work is challenging, rewarding – there’s something different every day.”
Despite the hard work, she has managed to find time to see the many museums and monuments that dot the Washington, D.C. landscape. One landmark that she found particularly inspiring was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Roosevelt guided the nation through one of its most trying times, the Second World War, despite being wheelchair-bound because of polio. Roosevelt’s presidency did a great deal to dispel widely held myths about the capability of people with disabilities – something that resonates with Lewis because she was diagnosed with a learning disability – dyslexia – when she was a young girl.
The Summer Congressional Internship Program for Students with Disabilities – sponsored by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the American Association of People with Disabilities – welcomes students with disabilities. She and her fellow interns all live with various disabilities, but manage to excel as students and, this summer, as public servants. Lewis is a committed advocate for people with disabilities, something that definitely underscored her desire to serve as an intern in D.C.
“It’s important to understand that people with disabilities are part of the human condition,” she said. “We are here; living our lives every day.”
Ironically, the question of disability has recently hit home in Sen. Kennedy’s office. The Massachusetts senator has been on leave since being diagnosed with a brain tumor in May, and only recently returned to the Senate to cast a vote in early July. While this has had obvious ramifications for his office – whether or when he will be able to resume his duties on a long-term basis is still unresolved – Lewis said that there has been lots to do in the senator’s absence.
“The office is optimistic,” she said. “Everyone expects him to recover. But in the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done. The office has to keep going.”
Lewis said her time in Washington definitely will figure into her future educational and career plans. While she still wants to work in disability advocacy – eventually as the head of a nonprofit organization – she said that she wants to spend at least some of her professional life working in the federal government.
“I want to make a change,” she said. “It’s been amazing to watch policy being hammered out in person. You can see change happen right in front of you.”