As an incoming first year student hoping to become a pediatrician, Edgar Avalos knew he wanted to help people. But after a brief stint taking lower-division biology classes, the now-senior international relations and English double major realized his future was closer to his roots.
Out of 800 applicants, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) selected Avalos as one of 30 students to participate in its Congressional Internship Program (CIP). The program is an eight-week paid work placement in Washington, D.C. for promising Latino undergraduates interested in pursuing politics.
The CHCI placed Avalos in the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Labor. During his internship, Avalos attended conference meetings with senior advisors to the secretary who discussed labor worker rights, safety and health issues, wage laws and statistics of people in the workforce.
“I had the chance to see into the background of what the Department of Labor actually does and insight into the different agencies,” Avalos said.
Avalos, who is the first member of his family to attend a four-year university, got his first taste of public policy from his Mexican-born parents. Avalos’ father is part of a labor union, and his mother is a social worker who often told him stories about her work.
“I remember her telling me when she met a man who was dying of AIDS and she helped him apply for Medicare. I saw how engaged she was with her work,” Avalos said.
At UC Davis, Avalos joined JusticeCorps, a collaborative program that recruits and trains students to intern in overburdened self-help centers and community service providers.
Through JusticeCorps, Avalos earned an internship with the UC Davis School of Law Family Protection and Legal Assistance Clinic (FPLAC). It was here that Avalos realized he wanted to be an advocate for the Hispanic community by getting involved in public policy and social services.
“I was touched by how the women were taken advantage of and by the fact that so many people didn’t have access to help. They don’t have the money or even the language to represent themselves,” Avalos said.
Krystal Callaway Jaime, supervising attorney for the FPLAC, was impressed by Avalos and described him as empathetic and patient. Jaime pointed out one instance in which a client would not stop speaking over the phone.
“He was just listening to her and letting her talk, even though he already told her we wouldn’t be able to help. And afterwards, he was kind of laughing about it and said, ‘That was a good learning experience,'” Jaime said.
Jaime, one of the Avalos’ references for the CIP, firmly believed he was an excellent candidate for that program.
“Because we work with victims of domestic violence, I was really eager to have someone of Spanish-speaking ability. The work we do can be sensitive, and it’s not for everyone,” Jaime said. “He has the qualities [the CIP] was looking for, which was a strong commitment to the community and strong leadership skills. Edgar was just that kind of student.”
Avalos’ second reference, UC Davis associate history professor Omnia El Shakry, said Avalos is the only student to seek her advice for an in-depth project for another class. Shakry said his ability to show initiative and ask for help was perfect for the CIP.
“It was very clear to me, whether it was about a paper or whether he wanted feedback, that asking for help wasn’t an issue,” Shakry said.
During the CIP, Avalos also met head Hispanic officials, participated in leadership and career building, practiced public speaking and helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity, in addition to his work with the Department of Labor. After volunteering for a lunch event priced at $650 per ticket, Avalos even got the opportunity to shake President Barack Obama’s hand.
Although Avalos said his experience in Washington, D.C. was positive, the most challenging part of the internship was meeting people with vastly different views.
“People would completely slam my views. It felt like they were putting you down for what you believe in. As hard as it was, it was kind of an eye-opener, and it also made my political viewpoints stronger,” Avalos said.
In the future, Avalos hopes to earn his Master’s degree in social welfare and public policy and eventually earn a law degree in international or immigration law. He hopes to emulate one of his role models,
Harvey Milk, in his efforts to reduce inequality and discrimination of
“[Milk] was a minority in his respect and he didn’t let anyone put him down. I think he really changed the direction for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community,” Avalos said. “He was a good role model for any minority because he really started a movement.”
GRACE BENEFIELD can be reached at email@example.com.