VCU student Nadia Pablo standing in the University Student Commons
Nadia Pablo, an aspiring occupational therapist, helped draft a bill in the House of Representatives to help children with developmental disabilities. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Bills, tours and a shoutout in the House: Nadia Pablo’s Capitol Hill internship

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Last summer — after two semesters at Virginia Commonwealth University and a chance encounter with an old friend from her home island of Guam — Nadia Pablo began an internship on Capitol Hill, working for Rep. Madeleine Bordallo. 

There, Pablo helped draft a bill to increase federal funding for special education in public schools in outlying U.S. territories. When Bordallo introduced the bill in the House of Representatives, she thanked Pablo by name.

“I had no idea,” Pablo said. “At first, before I heard my name, I thought, ‘This is so cool.’ But when she mentioned my name and then VCU, my jaw just dropped, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awesome.’”

Pablo is not studying political science or government. She is a kinesiology student who wants to pursue a career in occupational therapy. She applied for the internship in Bordallo’s office only after a conversation with a family friend over the 2017 Christmas holiday. 

“He works on Capitol Hill and he worked for the congresswoman,” said Pablo, now a sophomore in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “And he asked if I would ever be interested in working for her. I was not that into politics and it's not where my career is going, but I thought it would be a cool opportunity.”

Rep. Madeleine Bordallo thanks VCU's Nadia Pablo on the floor of the House of Representatives

Pablo was born in Guam and moved to Virginia when she was 10. In addition to leading guests on tours of the U.S. Capitol, her internship included finding an issue in Guam and proposing a solution. That became the starting point for H.R. 6770, the IDEA Parity for Outlying Areas Act. Pablo had spent her first year at VCU working with children at St. Joseph’s Villa — a nonprofit organization that helps children with developmental disabilities — and knew she wanted to connect her academic field to the internship.

She contacted members of her family in Guam, especially aunts and uncles who work as nurses and teachers, and asked them about issues they see in their fields linked to occupational therapy or students with disabilities. 

“I got back all these ideas, but the one that stood out was from my aunt, who is a kindergarten teacher,” Pablo said. “She’s been teaching for about 40 years and each year she would always have at least one student with an intellectual disability. And that kid hardly ever gets access to special needs services. She said the last time she checked, there was one occupational therapist for all the schools in Guam.” 

Guam is small, Pablo said, with a population of around 165,000. However, to hear there was one occupational therapist for the island’s schools indicated a deeper story. In her remarks on the House floor, Bordallo said the U.S. Department of Education frequently does not allocate the full amount of federal funds reserved annually under the Individuals with Disabilities Act for outlying U.S. territories and the Freely Associated States (the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau). Pablo, in her research, found several instances of parents complaining to news outlets about a lack of services for students with developmental needs. 

“The parents [were] complaining that there aren’t really any services — not just OT, but [physical therapy] and speech therapy — provided to these students,” she said. “It touched my heart. I want to go into occupational therapy and this is the population I want to work with. And it’s back home. I wanted to be a voice for those who don’t have one.” 

Nadia Pablo and Rep. Madeleine Bordallo
Pablo with Rep. Madeleine Bordallo in Bordallo's office. (Photo courtesy of Nadia Pablo)

Working in Bordallo’s office gave Pablo a more holistic view of her field of study. The bill she helped craft — which would increase federal funds for public school special education in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Freely Associated States — was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last fall. It could benefit more than 7,100 students with disabilities who live in outlying U.S. territories and the Freely Associated States, Bordallo said.

For Pablo, helping write the bill is a source of pride. After returning to VCU last fall, she began working as an education coach with ACE-IT in College, a program that provides students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to attend classes at VCU. As for the Capitol Hill internship, Pablo recommends it to any student interested, regardless of their major.

“I would definitely recommend it, even if you’re not going into political science,” she said. “I’m going into the health sciences and I was able to shape my internship in a way that will help me grow toward my future. This experience broadened my perspective. People can make a difference in whatever field they are going into.”