Allison Paulson: Serving in the US Senate

Sitting outside Starbucks on a lazy Friday afternoon, Allison Paulson is the perfect picture of a So-Cal high school junior. Sporting a navy blue Aeropostale sweatshirt and jeans, coupled with blond hair pulled up into a nonchalant bun, Paulson leans forward in her chair, laughing and illustrating her stories with wide sweeps of her hands, hot-pink nails flashing. 

Just looking at Paulson’s hand motions gives no clue that she is animatedly gesticulating about falling in the Senate Chamber, living on Capitol Hill, and the government shutdown. However, this was Paulson’s reality from September to January when she spent the first semester of her junior year in Washington DC, serving as a Senate Page in the United States Senate.

Paulson, whose uncle Mike Lee is a Republican Senator from Utah, was one of the 15 girls and 15 boys who were chosen to participate in the Senate Page Program, which gives students from around the country the opportunity to live in Washington DC for five months and witness first-hand the day-to-day operations of our government. Pages came from as far away as Alaska and as close as West Virginia.

Being a Senate Page is no easy feat. After passing a lengthy application process, participants are expected to work long days while keeping up with demanding coursework, as well as following a set of strict rules. Every morning, Paulson got up at 4:45 to take American Literature, US History, Chemistry, and Pre-Calculus. “There’s four classes, so they’re super short, but they’re very rigorous,” Paulson explains.

After school each morning, Paulson and the other Pages would take a short walk across the street to the Capitol building, where they spent the rest of the day. Sometimes, Paulson worked in the Senate Chamber until four o’clock in the morning, or until the Senate adjourned. “That could be nine at night, it could be at six, it could be four in the morning, it really just depends … Once every three weeks we would get back at midnight.”

In addition to working long hours and keeping up with a demanding education, Paulson says that one of the hardest parts of the program was following the many rules in place. “They’re basically your parents while you’re there,” she laughs. 

Being caught breaking the rules could lead to demerits, or even worse, expulsion. “One kid got sent home the night before their graduation. After all of the whole program … I felt so bad for him,” Paulson says.

About the actual government shutdown, Paulson says that being on the Senate floor was “anticlimactic” both at the moment of shutdown and throughout the weeks that followed. She recounts being present at 11:59 p.m. as Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) spoke. The clock turned to midnight, and Reid stopped, looked at the clock and said “And now the government is shut down.”

“And he just finished his speech!” Paulson exclaims. As a Page, Paulson was one of the few “essential staff” members who were required to work through the government shutdown. Apparently, Paulson laughs, “lunch ladies were not essential employees.”

She has a few more interesting tales to tell, including the famous Green Eggs and Ham filibuster by Senator Ted Cruz. “So, Ted Cruz (R-TX) … he and Harry Reid (the Senate majority leader), do not get along,” Paulson explains. She goes on, fingers tapping on her phone, explaining filibustering. “He was talking about Obamacare and how he didn’t support it … then he read Green Eggs and Ham when he ran out of stuff to talk about. I was there … It was me and one other person in the whole chamber while he was reading the book. It was like he was reading the book to me,” says Paulson.
Once, Paulson even fell down the stairs of the Senate Chamber–in front of galleries full of spectators and cameras streaming nationwide. “I’m picking up a podium to go put it away after a Senator finished his speech, and I didn’t see the stair. And I just pummeled down the stairs,” Paulson says, laughing. “And I looked around, and the President of the Senate … the President just looks over and is like ‘oh’, and finishes talking. And the whole gallery is laughing at me, everyone is there is laughing at me, and everyone made fun of me for falling off the stairs on national TV. Not that anyone watches the channel, but … it was really embarrassing.”

Despite how it may sound, the program was not entirely hard work. On the weekends and days Paulson and the other pages got off work early, the entirety of DC was at their fingertips. “We could walk around, go to museums, but usually we were too busy. They would take us every other weekend on a field trip somewhere. We went swing dancing once,” says Paulson. 

Coming home has been a huge transition for her, especially with the scheduling of her second-semester. 
“Because we’re on a block schedule, it’s always hard because (the program) follows the traditional school year, which means when she came back, she had to re-take the first half of a class that was similar … It gets to be a little bit of a challenge,” says José Ireta, Paulson’s counselor. 

Paulson’s time in the Senate has had a profound impact both on her as a person and on her political beliefs. Her view of the government as a whole has shifted drastically. 

One of the biggest surprises for Paulson was the fact that only a handful of Senators would show up at a time; even for votes, Senators would quickly come in and out. “It changed my view of the government so much. Both sides! No one does anything, only one person is on the floor at a time giving a speech, and there’s a long wait before anyone comes on. The votes … all they have to do is come in and say yay or nay,” Paulson says, clearly exasperated and waving one hand in the air. “And it takes them 45 minutes to do one vote, when really it should take five minutes. And it’s like, come on! All you have to do is raise your hand.” 

Paulson made many close friends during her time in the program. However, being scattered all over the country doesn’t stop them from keeping in contact with each other; Paulson and many other of the other Senate Pages talk regularly through a huge mass text that has been running since they came home. “We’re talking all the time,” Paulson laughs. One of Paulson’s closest friends from the program, Maddy Hawkes, even came to California from her home state of Nevada to attend prom.

Despite the embarrassing moments, rigorous schedules, and difficult transition period, Paulson is thankful for the chance to see the inner workings of the government and grow as a person. “It really was the best experience ever,” Paulson says.

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