Week 2: Trial by Fire, or Senior Freeze!

By: Sheaa Amin

The day was July 8th, 2019.

I turned to my left and turned off the alarm ringing at 6 am and stared at my ceiling. It was the first day of my internship at Senator Vin Gopal’s office in Tinton Falls. As a rising senior in high school, this internship was going to be a lot of firsts: first time driving on the parkway by myself, the first time working in an office where I didn’t know anyone, and my first time being on my own in a completely new area. I tried preparing for my first day the best I could. The day before, I did a trial run of the car ride with my mom so I would have a better idea of where I am going on my first day. However, no trial is complete without setbacks: ten minutes in, my GPS lost signal and I ended up taking a wrong exit. Then, as my mom and I panicked to figure out where we were, we saw a toll booth approaching us. I had forgotten the EZPass! Ultimately, I figured out how to pay the toll and get home, and after a close analysis of Google Maps, my mom and I managed to make our way south to the Senator’s office. Fearful of getting lost on my first day, I charged one of my old phones, turned on the GPS, and connected it to my current phone’s hotspot so I had two navigation directions going on at the same time. I set out my outfit the night before (and changed it at least ten times in the morning) and thought about how I would present myself, as recommended by the speakers from our Week 1 speakership series.

I was greeted warmly at the office by Aislinn, the Senator’s Policy Director, and Toni, the Senator’s Deputy Chief of Staff who was working remotely for the day, who instructed me to read up on Senator Gopal’s existing bills and to familiarize myself with his key areas of concern. I then updated his senate voting history in a spreadsheet and worked on a bill briefing regarding a hiring pool for teachers who were laid off due to cuts in state funding. During my last thirty minutes, I was instructed to work on a constituent concern that was extremely interesting. The constituent had read a news story on the Washington Post about how the DMV facial recognition software is being used by the FBI and ICE. My task was to research whether the state of NJ uses facial recognition software in the DMV, if formal agreements with a federal agency regarding the use of the software existed, and to look into bills regulating the use of facial recognition software. It was a very unique way to end a fantastic day!

My next few tasks took me multiple days to complete. I was tasked with updating spreadsheets with specific information, calling senior citizens in regard to the Senior Reimbursement Program (“Senior Freeze” program). I also dealt with phone calls when our scheduler was out and am currently tasked with a research project regarding Veteran reciprocity. My primary work in the office deals with research, organization, and data collection.

On Wednesday, Senator Gopal came into the office and thanked us all for our hard work. The best part of my office is most definitely the inclusivity and the ease of conversation. My questions always felt welcomed, and my input was always appreciated. Truthfully out of laziness, I programmed one of the spreadsheets to automatically highlight rows if I used a specific phrase, making my data collecting more efficient. However, this act greatly impressed my Deputy Chief of Staff who had me teach herself and the other interns how to do the same in order to create unification within our office's documents. The interns range from sophomores in high school to seniors in college, but there is no exclusion within the office. The older interns actively give us advice and seek to get to know us, which has been super helpful.

In regard to my internship, I look forward to attending an Abortion Access Messaging Training Session with the staff at my office. Senator Gopal does phenomenal work advocating for the rights of his constituents and minority groups, and I look forward to seeing his current proposals progress into legislation.

I ended my first week by attending NJLP’s second Speakership series, held at the office of Wilentz, Goldman, and Spitzer. Though my day started rough as I got lost trying to find the office, the scheduled speakers were absolutely phenomenal. The first speaker of the day was Freeholder Shanti Narra of Middlesex County, who is the first South Asian freeholder in the state of New Jersey. She was also the first female South Asian councilwoman when she acted on the North Brunswick Council ten years ago. She was joined by Freeholder Assad Akhter of Passaic County. Mrs. Narra spoke of the lack of female South Asian representation in government, and how her progression in government is just the beginning of such representation. She encouraged us fellows to acknowledge and embrace our pasts, and acknowledging hers was crucial to her political career. Mr. Akhter encouraged us to create a plan for our futures- while we don’t have to follow it exactly, having a plan will connect us with mentors who can better guide us in our future pursuits. Both speakers emphasized that all politics is local, and hence having connections and networking is crucial.

Our third speaker of the day was Diane Gutierrez Scaccetti who is the commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Our discussion with her resonated with me the most, as she reminded us that our passions are what drive us and to hold true to who you are. A future in politics does not mean you have to give up music, math, or sports- by incorporating what you love in what you do, you will love what you do. She told us to come out of college “being something”- that is, come out of college being something that is desirable in the work market (be a teacher, an engineer, a lawyer- be something). Mrs. Gutierrez Scaccetti often repeated the phrases “touch everything you do” and “keep your mind open” to emphasize to us fellows that we are still growing and learning, and hence we should not close ourselves off from opportunities because of what we think we want. Her advice was different than advice I had heard before, and I am extremely grateful for it.

Our fourth speaker was Assemblyman Daniel Benson who represents the 14th Legislative District in New Jersey. When he told us about how he got started in politics, I found myself relating to many aspects of his story. Prior to his story, I had not heard of a politician who also pursued the sciences in college in conjunction to a humanities degree. We found other points in common, as we were both involved with Kiwanis (Key Club at the high school level) and he works as a consultant at the company my dad works for. He emphasized to us the importance of innovation and the relationship between science and politics in our legislature. As the chair of the Transportation and Independent Services committee in the assembly, he talked to us about how innovation impacts the work our government does to improve the lives of constituents, and how embracing technology is the future. His discussion provided new guidance to us fellows about how we approach our future endeavors.

Our final “speaker” consisted of a panel of local officials, including Cherry Hill Councilwoman Sangeeta Doshi, Passaic Councilman Salim Patel, Robbinsville Councilman Dan Schuberth, and former Edison Councilwoman Sapana Shah. This panel of speakers was very candid in how they got to where they did and the impact they have had on their communities. They emphasized the difference between acting on behalf of politics and policy and the corruption they have experienced in the name of acting upon politics. Ms. Shah also discussed the difficulty of navigating through the workplace environment as women, especially South Asian women, and how men and women in coming generations need to work together to make the workplace more welcoming of both genders.

The greatest takeaway from this week’s panel was this: Don’t close your mind to what the future has for you- embrace every opportunity. A lot of getting to a position in politics is from connections you develop working on campaigns and being involved in the community. Additionally, this anecdote was present in each speaker’s discussion: there will be rocks in your path; rather than dwelling on the rock, find a way to move past it and learn from it. This speakership series changed the way I am viewing my future plans, and I look forward to learning more from upcoming speakership series. But before that, my cohort and myself look forward to attending a trip to Washington D.C. on July 19th during which we will visit the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court.