Sixteen-year-old St. Johnian J’Nay Penn, daughter of Jose and Linda Penn, is back from her monthlong experience as a Congressional Page in Washington, D.C., and is excited to share her experiences and encourage others to follow in her footsteps.
Penn, who is entering her junior year at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, was the third Congressional Page to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Virgin Islands in the program’s 200-year history. She was nominated to the position by her school’s student council, and was sponsored by Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen.
During her time in Washington, Penn got to experience first-hand life on the floor of Congress.
“Being on the House floor is such a crazy experience, because on TV, you only get to hear what the person at the microphone is saying,” said Penn. “In person, you hear congressmen booing; you have to be there to really hear and feel what’s going on. Voting is the craziest time, because that’s when all the congressmen are on the house floor.”
As a Congressional Page, Penn was responsible for jobs such as delivering correspondence and legislative material, holding doors open for congressmen, delivering flags to offices within the Capitol and bringing congressmen on the floor whatever they needed, from index cards to candy bars. She even got to appear on TV.
“When you hold the doors open for the speaker of the house, you get to be on TV just for one second, but it’s live, so if you don’t catch it, you miss it,” said Penn. “My favorite job was as a statement page, where you make sure a congressman who is debating has their statement on paper. You’re on TV the entire time, because you’re sitting there waiting to deliver the statement.”
In addition to gaining real-life experience on the Congressional floor, Penn also experienced dorm living for the first time. The Congressional Page program goes to great lengths to ensure its pages feel safe, she explained.
“We had proctors who lived in the dorms with us, so if there were any problems, we could get an adult right away,” said Penn. “You had to scan your ID to get into any room, and when you leave work after 6 p.m., you get a police escort back to the dorm. You can feel the sense of security they have for the Pages, and for anybody who works at the Capitol.”
Penn also experienced the pride visitors to Washington had in the Pages — she was even asked for her autograph. The Pages are easily recognizable thanks to their strict dress code.
“Here, we always complain about our school’s dress code, but there, you have to have everything together — your tie has to be tied, your collar has to be buttoned down and you have to be mindful of how you’re dressed, because at any moment you might meet someone or get a moment on TV,” said Penn. “That’s probably why we have the dress codes here, because they are preparing us for later when dress codes are mandatory. Even congressmen have been kicked off the floor because they were wearing jeans, so you really have to know your stuff.”
White House Tour
The strict dress code was a source of anxiety for Penn before she departed for Washington, she explained.
“I had to go through the process of learning how to tie a tie, so the day before I went, I had on like 10 of my father’s ties trying to practice,” said Penn.
Penn’s time as a Page, however, was not all work and strict dress codes — the Congressional Pages got the chance to get out and have some fun exploring Washington as well.
“We went to Six Flags, and we went to an Orioles vs. Yankees baseball game,” said Penn. “We saw the Phantom of the Opera at the Kennedy Center, which was amazing because I’m into art.”
Penn also had the opportunity to tour the White House, where she realized what a good experience the Page program really is, she explained.
“One of the pages had an aunt who works in the White House, and she got us a tour,” said Penn. “At one point we actually stood where the president stands every morning, and I really just stopped for a moment and thought about how not many people at home get to stand where I was standing, or do what I did. I want to encourage other students to contact Delegate Christensen if you really want to be a Page and see what could happen.”
For Penn, the experience opened her eyes to how much opportunity there is for kids her age, no matter what line of work they choose to follow.
“When you look at the Capitol, people only think of senators and congressmen, but there’s so much more that goes into it,” said Penn.
“There are barber shops, gift shops and tailors. If you want to be a seamstress, be the best — be in the Capitol.”
Improving Communication Skills
“They have an office of photography, and I love art and pictures, so if I want, I could be in that atmosphere again,” Penn continued. “It’s not limited to just being a politician.”
The IEK junior also fine-tuned her communication skills, both by interacting with congressmen, and watching them interact with each other.
“Just from listening to the speeches and how the congressmen really get their point across, I think I’ll be good in English this year,” said Penn. “I wasn’t really scared of the congressmen. You have to interact with them on a different level.”
As a Congressional Page, Penn met other kids her age from across the United States, and educated them about the V.I. One Page, who knew little about the territory, even admitted to researching the Virgin Islands online after learning where Penn was from. The Pages are considering a reunion, which Penn hopes will be in her home islands, she explained.
Penn enjoyed her time in Washington so much that she may even return as an intern.
“I never knew that I’d get to meet so many people and just digest all that’s going on at the Capitol,” she said. “I had so much fun. It’s a really cool job, and people in Washington really respect you for what you do.”
“I met people I can keep in contact with for a lifetime,” Penn added.