Antonia Quintero of Hilton Head Island recently became a U.S. citizen – and she celebrated this milestone by immersing herself in national politics. Quintero, who was born in Colombia and grew up in South Carolina, just spent a semester working for U.S. Congressman James Clyburn in Washington, D.C.

A senior at the Bluffton campus of the University of South Carolina Beaufort, she participated in a highly competitive selection process to become a congressional intern. This fall, she was behind the scenes of the U.S. legislative process, attending meetings and helping constituents who called to express their concerns about issues large and small. The phones never stop ringing at Clyburn’s office – he has represented South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District since 1993 and is the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, as well as chairman of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“I had an incredible experience,” she said. “I wasn’t as aware of what was going on in politics before. I learned how to communicate across many different levels, and how to take good notes quickly that others on my team would be able to understand later.”

South Carolina residents contacted Clyburn’s office to express their opinions about the incoming administration’s cabinet picks, and request that lawmakers pass a second COVID-relief stimulus package, among other concerns, Quintero said.

She describes Clyburn, who has crusaded for civil rights and racial justice since the 1960s, as accessible – despite his busy schedule and tremendous leadership responsibilities.

“He is interested in where you’re from and what you think,” she said. “He wants to know what is important to the younger generation.”

After graduation, Quintero, 21, plans to pursue a master’s degree in public administration with concentrations in advocacy and public policy. The personal connections she made in D.C. “could really help me in the future,” she said. 

During her time in D.C., she explored the city, and visited the monuments and memorials on the National Mall, which reopened in September following protocols designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Her apartment was within walking distance of restaurants from around the world, and she tried food from as many countries as possible.

Life in a big city was new to Quintero, who lives with her mother, Bibiana Osorio, and 17-year-old brother Esteban Quintero on Hilton Head when USCB isn’t in session. Except for a brief stint back in Colombia, she has lived in South Carolina since she was a year old. Both her mom and brother accompanied her on the train to D.C. when she started her internship.

“I definitely missed them, being away from home,” she said.

Quintero graduated from Hilton Head Island High School, where she completed its prestigious International Baccalaureate program. At USCB, she is student body vice president and a resident asssistant in the campus dorms. During summers, she works at the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island.

Quintero said she hopes more minority students will apply for the South Carolina Washington Semester Internship Program, which is administered by the University of South Carolina but open to students at all higher education institutions in the state. She and others in her cohort of 12 received scholarships to help with the cost of the program. Program staff place the students in paying internships and housing.

“Any college student who is interested in politics or public policy should definitely check it out,” she said.

Quintero also thinks it’s important that Latinx young people who are eligible to vote in the U.S. exercise this right. She urges: “Get registered and go vote. We must be the voices of those who can’t.”

Carol Weir is the interim senior director of communications for the University of South Carolina Beaufort in Bluffton.