Tonya Chissell-Williams and José Eduardo Sanchez
Two University of Houston-Downtown political science students overcame life-changing challenges to get their college education, but their hard work has paid off in an important U.S. congressional internship this spring.
Tonya Chissell-Williams, a New Orleans native who lost family and friends in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and José Eduardo Sanchez, who helped raise his little brother and sister after his mother died, are Mickey Leland Congressional interns in Washington, D.C., this semester.
U.S. Rep. George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, who died in a 1989 plane crash, started the program. He wanted service-minded students from Houston to experience American government at its highest level in the nation’s capital. A selection committee from the Center for Public Policy (CPP) at the University of Houston, which houses the program, chose Sanchez, Chissell-Williams and six others for the internship.
“It’s an exciting time to be in (Washington) D.C. right now,” said Chissell-Williams, who works in U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee’s office. “We are at the core of U.S. politics.”
Sanchez works in U.S. Rep. Gene Green’s office. He has counseled youth at the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, volunteered at the Houston Interfaith Workers Justice Center and worked as a teacher’s aide at the Montessori Country Day School. He applied for the internship to experience government from the policymaker’s side.
“Politics is part of our everyday lives,” said Sanchez, 21. “If we choose not to participate, then we have no voice, and the democratic process is not upheld. We lose the opportunity to help our families and our communities.”
A junior at UHD, Sanchez graduated from MacArthur High School in the Aldine Independent School District. His mother motivated him to be a good student. After her death in 2003, he became his younger siblings’ caretaker but refused to give up his dream. “I’ve overcome a lot of things but I didn’t want to put my dreams aside,” said Sanchez.
“José is probably one of the smartest students I’ve ever taught,” said David Branham, UHD assistant professor of political science and coordinator of the UHD interns. “His grasp of policy analysis and economics is impressive. He has a humility about him that makes his community service and intelligence more remarkable. When he interviewed for the internship, advisory board member Keith Wade, Leland’s close friend, said José was a man after Mickey’s own heart. That is why this internship is so special, because students have to be special and committed to be considered. They are fulfilling Mickey Leland’s dream.”
Before moving to Houston, Chissell-Williams was a student government officer at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. Governor Kathleen Blanco appointed her while she was a student there to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System Advisory Board. In May 2005, Chissell-Williams completed an associate degree in computer information systems and enrolled in the University of New Orleans. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Many of Chissell-Williams’ friends and family died when their Ninth Ward neighborhood flooded. Chissell-Williams left New Orleans and resettled with relatives in Houston.
Family members pushed Chissell-William, 29, to return to college in 2007. From the beginning, she said she felt welcomed at UHD “I am so grateful for UHD. I’ve really connected with all of my professors and they connected with me,” she said.
Branham said it took an incredible amount of energy for Chissell-Williams to make it to where she is today. “She has talents that make her special and her story is compelling. I expect her to be a success, whatever her pursuits.”
“I have this little group of people that keeps encouraging me,” said Chissell-Williams, a former intern with Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson’s office and winner of the 2009 Women Professionals in Government Beverly Kaufmann scholarship award. “I know that I can’t fail; I have to succeed. Too many people have passed for me not to fulfill my destiny. That’s what keeps me grounded and focused on my goal.”
Renée Cross, associate director of the CPP and director of the congressional internship program, said Sanchez and Chissell-Williams will get real-world experience on Capitol Hill that will provide long-term rewards. “Students such as Tonya and José,who arealready committed to public service, are able todevelop theirskills andestablish professionalnetworks. This experience benefits them personally, and because of their commitment, it benefits the Houston community,"said Cross, who also teaches political science at UHD.
The students started work in January and will live in Washington, D.C. until May. When they complete the program, Sanchez will earn 12 credit hours and Chissell-Williams will earn nine post-baccalaureate credit hours. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in December 2009.
Interns receive a monthly stipend, round-trip airfare and stay at Boston University’s Washington Center. They work an average of 40 hours a week with congressional staffers. Their responsibilities may include legislative research, project planning and attending events and meetings, as well as routine office duties. In addition, they attend a weekly seminar led by an on-site instructor and keep a journal of their experiences that Branham will grade at the end of the term.
When he returns, Sanchez wants to continue his work with nonprofits and further his education in international politics. Chissell-Williams is applying to the Texas Southern University master’s degree program in public administration.