Not long after her Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature team won “Best Overall Delegation” accolades last November, Nicki Messer—at the time just a couple of weeks away from graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga—was asked about her future plans.
“I’m thinking of moving to D.C. and trying to get the process going for applying to internships in Congress,” Messer said, “and I really want to work in a member’s office.”
Little did she know how prophetic those words would be.
Messer, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science in December 2021, now finds herself on Capitol Hill.
After serving as an intern for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Messer joined the congressman’s staff full-time in March.
“I was anxious to get out of Tennessee and experience something new,” she said. “After a few months of being an intern, they offered me a job as a staff assistant.”
She explained that the staff assistant is an entry-level position most people get when they want to work on Capitol Hill. Her duties include writing, answering phones, sorting through letters the congressman receives and overseeing the Washington-based interns.
“Part of my job is also giving tours when possible. That’s always fun,” she said.
The physical location of where she works is in one of the House of Representatives office buildings near the U.S. Capitol. Washington is a walkable city, Messer said, and she walks to work every day.
“The best part about working at the Capitol is the Capitol,” she said, “but it’s just really cool to hear things. You hear about a development or a story and consistently follow it. You hear bits and pieces from other people about what may or may not happen, so in some ways it’s like you’re a step ahead of what everybody else knows.”
She admitted the novelty can wear off, “but there is this feeling of satisfaction when something finally does get done. Sometimes, you can be pleasantly surprised.”
‘Nothing could really prep me for this job’
During her UTC days, Messer participated in three mock government competitions at the annual Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature. Also known by the acronym TISL, the gatherings bring together college students from across the state.
As a senator and vice president of last fall’s UTC delegation, Messer was responsible for presenting nine bills on varying issues and complexity. She succeeded in getting eight of the bills passed, earning a coveted Carlisle Award—which honors exceptional student legislators.
Messer’s pre-D.C. background also included serving as a bill clerk for the Tennessee General Assembly from January-July 2021.
But those experiences barely scratched the surface in preparing her for life on Capitol Hill.
“It’s kind of been a whirlwind because The Hill is a lot more fast-paced than I am used to,” Messer said. “Honestly, nothing could really prep me for this job. It’s challenging but in a good way.”
She said the best preparation came from a most unlikely source.
“I think the biggest thing about going to school during the pandemic was that it taught me how to be flexible; that was my biggest prep,” she said. “I have had to learn that because sometimes your entire day can change on a dime based on what’s happening.
“With my job, if I get a certain kind of phone call from a constituent or my boss needs me to do something, that can upend my whole day; I have to reorient myself to that specific goal. Since I’m in the front of the office, people can walk in—and there’s always a lot of noise because everyone has a TV on for the news. It’s always kind of buzzing.”
Despite the frenetic pace, “probably the weirdest thing on The Hill is that everything is in a rush,” she said. “People move very fast, but things always start 10 minutes after they say they’re going to start.”
‘Take as many professional writing classes as possible’
After six months on Capitol Hill, Messer has the following advice for college students who aspire to follow her path.
“Learn how to write well. That is the biggest one, by far,” Messer said. “My writing was considered pretty OK by college standards, but writing in a workplace, especially on The Hill—where it’s really easy to get bogged down by technocratic details—you can’t write the same way an academic would. Definitely take as many professional writing classes as possible and get comfortable writing memos.”
She stressed that learning to understand developments in technology and science is beneficial. Statistics, too.
“Also, get comfortable with public speaking and learning how to talk to powerful people,” she said. “The way you carry yourself in public and in your writing can open a lot of doors for you.
“If you don’t know how to speak or how to write, that’s going to close doors.”
‘This is going to be my first big adult challenge’
Messer is spending her first extended July 4 weekend in Washington, and the nation’s capital is an interesting place to be these days for many reasons.
For Messer, it’s even more interesting because Cooper—a 32-year veteran of Congress—has announced his retirement, effective January 2023.
“He announced it before I started the position, but I was just thrilled not only to have a job but to work for him, specifically,” Messer said. “I grew up in the Nashville area in Mount Juliet, so I was relatively close to his district, and I was fortunate to get into an office that was close-knit and cared about each other.
“I’m lucky to have a few months’ notice, but it is something that’s kind of there. You just have to be flexible and keep your options open.”
When members of Congress retire, their staff are displaced. Messer said people retiring at mid-terms isn’t unusual, so she’s balancing learning on the job while keenly aware of having to find a different position in a few months.
Networking and relationship building are essential components.
“The responsibility is on me to take that next step,” she said. “You have to have that mindset of being the one that goes out, networks with people and creates these relationships because it’s not going to fall into your lap.
“This is going to be my first big adult challenge, but it was going to come sooner or later.”
If all goes as planned, Messer will land another plum role in Washington and take the next steps in her career journey.
“I’ve only been working on The Hill for a few months, and from what I’ve heard, it takes several months—if not a year—to wrap your head around how the institution works,” she said.
“It’s one thing to read your textbook about Congress. It’s another thing to work here, to understand how things get done, the dos and don’ts—but also just figuring out who the leaders of tomorrow are going to be and understanding what your future is going to look like.”