UT College of Education student Alyssa Mayleen Mermea combines new interests with long-standing ones, earns Washington, D.C., internship
Nurturing a long-standing interest in counseling within minority communities, Alyssa Mermea traveled from her home in El Paso to The University of Texas at Austin to study psychology. She was interested in developing a safe place for minorities to talk with someone. “We don’t talk about mental health in our communities,” she explains, “and I believe that conversation—allowing people to safely let everything out—can change lives. I’m passionate about that.”
Mermea became involved with the university’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter, a branch of the nationwide organization that works to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health, and civil rights of the Hispanic population in the United States. There, she met then-president of the university’s LULAC chapter, Maria Librado ‘14, who was a youth and community studies major at the College of Education.
“I wasn’t happy as a psychology major, and I talked to Maria about it,” says Mermea. “She showed me the degree requirements for her major and the concentrations were everything I could ask for. I transferred. It’s a smaller school and I connect well with the professors.”
Mermea became director of education at LULAC, which fit well with her interests. “Part of LULAC’s mission is community and advocacy,” she says. LULAC gave her the opportunity to attend the EMERGE Latino conference, a multi-day leadership conference that takes place in Washington D.C. There, she had a chance to witness public policy briefings on public health, education, and immigration, and received training in civic engagement and advocacy. Says Maria, “We attended a panel discussion that seemed like gibberish and I had absolutely no interest. But I fell in love with D.C. and got more involved.”
The experience changed her previous perceptions about politics and public policy.
“I began having conversations about politics and it became a part of my life,” she says.
“Witnessing advocacy on the Hill, I began to wonder how I could be the voice in the room next time. I started to understand the vocabulary, demeanor, and tone to get things done on the Hill, and why it was relevant to be more politically educated.”
Mermea decided to apply to become a congressional intern through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, headquartered in D.C. “The program is about helping people understand how legislators work,” she explains. “It’s a prestigious and competitive application process. I was nervous because I am not a political science or government major, and my resume doesn’t show a keen interest in politics. But I did it anyway. I figured if I didn’t get it, at least I took a risk to educate myself, and if I failed, it wouldn’t diminish anything that I’ve accomplished to date.”
Mermea got the call in June that she was accepted and would be an intern with Congressman Lloyd Doggett from Texas in the fall.
In her internship, she fielded phone calls, took notes, “and went to briefings that interested me,” she says. “I met three presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, and shook President Obama’s hand.” Another highlight was helping LULAC high schoolers who visited from San Marcos and San Antonio. “I saw them take interest in this at a young age and I was able to be in a position that was meaningful and inspirational to them.”
Mermea says that the experience has been very valuable to her regarding her community-service goals. “Spending time getting constituents’ information through to their representative has given me an appreciation for what the city and community want and need. I recognize the issues and am learning how Congress works. Learning what our people really want has helped me learn how I can connect with my community.”
One of a cohort of 22 interns that included students with diverse interests, such as political science and law, Mermea says they’ll continue to use each other as a network in the future. And her interests have broadened to include her new knowledge. “Now that I’ve been here and see people who look like me, I’m interested in going to graduate school and working for the Department Education,” she says.
Mermea intends to leave Texas for the Midwest or Northeast and cites her love of travel as “part of what drives my passion for diversity and perspective of cultures and people all over the nation and the world. I am exploring how I can take this knowledge and translate what I’ve learned to those who may never have this experience in my community. I want people—especially those back home, my family, my community—to witness and experience that there is no limit to what we can do.”