October 17, 2012
by Matt McKinney ‘13
Knox College senior Kristal Romero served for 11 weeks as the lone intern in the district office of United States Representative Jerry McNerney, a five-year veteran of California's 11th Congressional District.
"I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought it was going to be like other internships, where you just fetch coffee," said Romero, an international relations major from Manteca, California.
It turned out to be much more: Romero answered phones, worked at events and interacted with constituents during what sometimes amounted to 10-hour work days.
Two other interns who had initially been brought on to work with her during the summer ended up backing out just days before their internships were to begin.
"I was by myself, which was definitely a challenge, but it was also an opportunity," she said.
Romero came to Knox most interested in political science and international relations. She still recalls her experience as a first-year student lugging her 912-page textbook to the back corners of Seymour Library for grueling study sessions.
Romero thumbed though the massive Diplomacy by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- widely regarded as the seminal guide to foreign relations, but notorious for its dense and highly theoretical prose -- and felt lost.
"I thought I couldn't do it," she said.
She sought help from Knox faculty member Sue Hulett, who is Richard P. and Sophia D. Henke Distinguished Professor of Political Science and chair of International Relations. In doing so, Romero earned a mentor, an advocate and a lasting friend.
"Sue wouldn't let me quit. She was just really supportive and helped me get through it," she said.
Romero also credited Karen Kampwirth, professor of political science and chair of Latin American Studies, with her development as an eager international relations student. Both professors wrote Romero letters of recommendation leading into her internship.
"They've definitely been my biggest supporters on campus," she said.
A congressman's district office can be a frenetic place. The phones ring off the hook, staffers and interns juggle casework, and people are always on the move, Romero said.
"I didn't think I was going to be so hands-on with constituents. I had to take on a leadership role, but it was definitely rewarding," she said.
Romero's casework dealt primarily with federal issues, including veterans affairs and home foreclosure. There are a staggering number of cases, some of which date back as far as five years, Romero said.
Since 2007, California has ranked near the top of all states for home foreclosures, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"My job was basically to bridge the gap. We looked into things for constituents to help fix disconnects between them and the government," she said. "I guess I didn't realize the federal government was putting in so much effort to help the constituent."
Romero's job often required her to act as a delegate between banks and constituents seeking adjustment on their housing loans.
"I remember having a woman crying on the phone, thanking us for everything. We helped her modify her loans, which allowed her to keep her house and stay with her family. That one was really awesome," she said.
Romero, whose parents emigrated from Nicaragua, also helped immigrants gain U.S. citizenship, a process that can sometimes take close to a decade. She checked with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of aspiring U.S. citizens to see if there had been any snags in the process.
"What I learned is that everything stems from a phone call," she said.
Throughout the internship, Romero remained in contact with Knox faculty members Hulett and Kampwirth.
"The whole summer, Sue and Karen were always checking in," Romero said.
She told them that she was routinely sharing theoretical conversation with McNerney's staff members. It was a far cry from the student who had once felt overwhelmed by international relations.
"You're surprised by how much you've learn at Knox. The rigor of our courses prepared me to take on anything this summer threw at me. It took me a while, but I'm so glad I stuck with it," she said.
The internship solidified what she already suspected: Government is the path for her.
"I learned that no goal is too prestigious. You have to put yourself out there and shoot for the things you think you can't achieve," Romero said. "Knox helped me get there."