From Private Sector to Congressional: How to Adapt to Capitol Hill's Unique Work Culture
Are you curious about the experience of transitioning from the private sector to Capitol Hill? Look no further! Today, we have the privilege of introducing Aaron Chan, Staff Assistant for the Office of Senator Tammy Duckworth. Aaron shares his insights on his AAPI immigrant heritage, and how his passion for service led him to Capitol Hill.
Can you tell me about your career path that you’ve taken that’s led you to where you are now?
I’ve definitely had an atypical career path, even for a Hill staffer. As a first-generation student and second-generation immigrant, my parents sacrificed so much to let me reach for opportunities to succeed that they never had access to. So, I’ve always known that I wanted to be in a career where I could pay that back and serve others. I’d say that’s been the largest underlying principle for me when it came to job searching.
At first, I thought helping empower families like mine through financial literacy was what I wanted to do. While I found the work fulfilling, I felt myself wanting to have a greater impact and be more of a conduit for positive change that I had always envisioned for myself. When I came to this realization, I quit my job in the private finance world and moved to DC to do a master’s degree at George Washington University to refocus my career on international policy.
If you had told me three years ago when I had first moved to DC, that I would be working on the Hill, I would have said you were ridiculous. I didn’t see myself being important enough to be able to work in Congress, so I focused on the intersection between climate change and international politics and wasn’t really considering other career trajectories. However, I was lucky enough to get an internship with Representative Susie Lee (NV-03), and it really opened my eyes to how challenging, fulfilling, and fun working on the Hill could be. Although my internship was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was able to work on a wide variety of tasks from helping with a press conference and speech writing, to attending briefings and writing memos. I felt like I was making the difference I had always dreamed of, and I knew I wanted to come back as a staffer.
When I got a job offer for Senator Duckworth’s office, I felt really lucky to work for a member I looked up to and who prioritizes issues that I feel are important, like AAPI leadership and environmental justice.
What policy issues are you most interested/passionate about?
I am most interested in international relations and foreign policy space. As I mentioned before, my academic and research interests were solely focused on how climate change was affecting transnational security. As I have continued to engage in that space, I have also gotten into advocacy for building youth engagement in international relations and intergenerational leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough that my work has led me to serve as a representative delegate at the recent UN Water Conference for global youth and given me the opportunity to represent the United States at the G20 youth summit later this year.
From experience I know how fast paced and stressful working on the Hill can be, can you give an example of an obstacle you have faced or explain any difficulty while managing your job responsibilities?
I think the biggest obstacle for me was transitioning from my previous background in the private sector to my office’s work culture. In my previous work, everything was very siloed and there wasn’t a lot of communication between different departments.
Senator Duckworth’s office is the complete opposite of that. You can tell straight away that everyone in the office, from the Senator down, really believes in the power of collaborative work and doing their utmost to support each other. I feel very blessed to work in Senator Duckworth’s office for my first staffer job. Everyone has been so amazing at making me feel welcomed, helping me transition to their office culture, and empowering me to learn and grow as a Staff Assistant and as a human being.
What is your favorite restaurant in D.C.?
Normally, I tell my out-of-town friends to visit the Diplomat, for the classic D.C. experience. However, one restaurant that I really think is worth the drive is Padaek. It’s a phenomenal Laotian restaurant, and I’ve never had a bad meal there. Their Khao Soi is incredible, and I always take an extra Thai coffee to go.