Former U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland is taking on a new role working with young adults in addition to his position at Southeastern University. He has been named interim CEO of College to Congress, a non-profit organization that provides financial support for low-income students who are placed in congressional internships.
An experience early in his political career, Ross said, gave him a practical perspective for the job.
Historically, ambitious students seeking entry into political jobs on Capitol Hill know that step one is to apply for an internship. In the late 1970s Ross applied for an internship with then-Sen. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat from Lakeland. At that time, funds for internships were limited.
“I still have my January 1977 letter from Senator Lawton Chiles rejecting me for an internship,” Ross said. “One reason: We don’t have resources.”
Making sure there are adequate resources for students of low means is the mission of College to Congress, founded five years ago by Audrey Henson, a 31-year-old St. Petersburg resident whose career has focused on politics. Ross was asked to take the CEO role after serving on the C2C board last year.
“They asked me to come on board as interim CEO to develop and continue the founder’s vision for a true, international program,” Ross said. “We may find a full-time CEO with this program, but in the meantime I’m here to help draft a strategy to reach the next level.”
In a video on the organization’s website, Henson explains what it’s like to secure an internship but not have the finances to be able to afford to live and work in D.C. She understands the struggle because she had to take out student loans to intern in D.C.
“At that time interns weren’t paid,” Ross said. “When I was in Congress (2011-2019), interns were good but they came from adequate means.”
In addition to Congress, scholarships for the year-round program include state legislatures and local government. The average scholarship of $15,000, includes a housing allowance, wardrobe expense and a 10-hour training course in financial literacy. There are also courses in etiquette and resumé writing.
The organization’s funding comes from private foundations, corporations, and
individual donors. It raised $741,164 in 2019, according to its IRS filing.
Ross stresses the training helps students understand how to build good relationships while participating in the day-to-day workings of government offices, such as writing news releases or attending events.
Almost all interns end up finding jobs on Capitol Hill, he said.
In the last four years, College to Congress has trained 1,500 students in its online course and has worked one-on-one with more than 90 of them who have been placed in internships with partial scholarships. In addition, the organization has supported 50 seniors and recent graduates in full-semester Congressional internships, he said.
Ross said his dual roles with C2C and as director of the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University coincide on the concept of building future leaders “with an appreciation for the process and the importance of their work.”
“Our focus is not on policy but on process, on the information highway on which policy travels,” Ross said. “Without process there’s just chaotic debate.”
When SEU begins classes Aug, 23 Ross said, the center will launch a new political science curriculum, Third Way Civics, in conjunction with Ball State University. Another collaboration with the University of Minnesota uses research to develop a civility health index, a type of measure of a person’s propensity to want to be involved in community.
Ross, a 61-year-old Republican, retired from Congress in 2019 as representative for Florida’s District 15, and said after four terms in office there are some mixed feelings.
“I miss relationships with my friends on both sides of the aisle, but I don’t miss the increased polarization. It’s saddening,” he said.
Ross said Jan. 6, 2021, was a very sad day in American history. “Whatever Trump said or didn’t say, people have the ability to reason right from wrong,” Ross said. “There’s no excuse for these people to have done what they did. As an attorney, though, I believe they should have their due rights for this incident. They need to be heard, and to seek bail.”
Although he’s out of pubic office Ross said he doesn’t see himself as uninvolved.
“I can still can continue my passion for reform,” he said. “It’s not all about running for office, it’s about investing in your community, like [being on] the zoning board or a community organization. If you want a better community you have to be invested in community. “