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  • Ian Livingston Brooking

Coastal student making a difference on Capitol Hill

Cheyenne Cunningham, a senior marine science major with a concentration in ocean policy and legal studies, is spending her summer not in the Bahamas but in Washington, D.C. at the forefront of American politics.

Cunningham, a native of Stillwater, New York, is interning with United States Congressman Ralph Norman, who represents the 5th District of South Carolina. The 5th District of South Carolina encompasses eight entire counties (Cherokee, Chester, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster, Lee, Union and York) and some of Newberry, Spartanburg and Sumter Counties.

Norman is relatively new to the United States Congress, only assuming office on June 20, 2017. Cunningham discussed what her duties are on Capitol Hill.

“For the most part, I attend briefings and hearings on behalf of Congressman Norman and I also handle constituency concerns,” said Cunningham. “I have also been given the opportunity to attend briefings for personal reasons. For instance, toward the end of May, I attended a briefing on Coastal Resiliency and Ocean Stabilization.”

Cunningham also went into detail of what her daily routine consists of amidst the hustle and bustle in D.C.

“I live about thirty minutes from the Capitol but with traffic, it takes about two hours,” said Cunningham. “When my colleagues heard that, they were stunned. They couldn’t believe the dedication. When I get to work, I address constituency concerns that were left over from the night before. I will help organize anything that involves Congressman Norman’s schedule. Things can change on a dime in D.C. Briefings can pop up and I might have to go to that briefing if Congressman Norman can’t make it or if it is an issue or topic that Congressman Norman would like to learn more about.”

Working at the Capitol Building has its perks like having the opportunity to say that you work in the Capitol. Cunningham talked about what that has been like walking up the Capitol steps every day and if there is a possibility she will return to Washington.

“It is truly stunning,” said Cunningham. “It feels natural, and yet so humbling to be a part of something so much bigger than myself. The power of the atmosphere generates an energy that continues to feed my passion. With every step that I take in life, I want to make sure that I drive toward the underlying source to ensure real change. I will not settle for mediocrity. So, with that being said, returning to Washington may be one of the only routes of true impact, it is where much of the power lies. I want to create a positive long-term trend, that effects change that really sticks.”

Cunningham credits her accomplishments in D.C. to Thomas Mullikin, a research professor in the Department of Coastal and Marine Systems Science here at Coastal Carolina University.

“For me to generate such momentum of early success, all gratitude is owed to Mr. Tom Mullikin, a global leader on climate change expertise and commander of the South Carolina State Guard,” said Cunningham. “Mr. Mullikin has been an exceptional mentor and a lifelong friend and has turned an experiential learning internship into a world of open opportunity and achievement. The honor to work with Mr. Mullikin has allowed me to ignite an ambitious future. Mr. Mullikin has helped me acknowledge this: After relentless search of trying to see the bigger picture, I realized that I have to be the bigger picture.”

After several weeks in D.C., Cunningham says that her time there has sparked some new interests of hers in the world of ocean conservation.

“I have become really interested in alternative energy,” said Cunningham. “Congressman Norman really allows me to do what I want when it comes to attending things that I am passionate about and I am very grateful for that.”

The topic of climate change has not been a major focal point of discussion until rather recently. Cunningham gave her opinion as to why the conversation isn’t as talked about as other issues that make it on the docket.

“It is to my understanding that certain districts demand little engagement and concern with ocean and coastal management,” said Cunningham. “Therefore, people may not be sufficiently informed on the imminent danger and harm imposed on our oceans. However, as an immensely passionate advocate to protect and spread awareness, I feel as though it is my more obligation to speak for the oceans.”

Although her internship ends in late July, Cunningham says she has gained so much and looks forward to using what she has learned in D.C. to make the world a better place. Cunningham recently has been accepted into the Stennis Program for Congressional Interns and has also getting a chance to visit the White House with Congressman Norman to get a taste of what things are like on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“When I set foot in the White House, I had this feeling that I made it,” said Cunningham. “It gave me a chance to reflect on all of the work that I have been putting in. Again, I cannot thank Tom Mullikin enough because if it weren’t for him, my arrival to Congress would have taken a lot longer. When it comes to the Stennis Program, I am now meeting with senior congressional staff and participating in House and Senate floor activities. The average congressional intern normally does not take part in House and Senate floor activities where in this position, I will actually be helping with the legislative process.”

Cunningham says that the Stennis Program for Congressional Interns helps get one step closer to a goal of hers that she has had for a long time – getting a bill onto either the House floor.

“The things I have been doing in this internship have been an absolute dream of mine and the fact that they are coming true so early in my life is just stunning,” said Cunningham. “It is keeping me two steps ahead of the game because I am taking part in the legislative process that runs this country. It also helping me get closer to reaching my goal of helping write a bill that gets introduced to the House floor.”

Cunningham plans to graduate from Coastal Carolina this December and can definitely see herself returning to D.C.

“The reason I have driven toward Capitol Hill, is to thoroughly understand the true legislative process, and to develop an aptitude for public service,” said Cunningham. “I have dedicated my life to speaking for the environment, more specifically the oceans, so what better way than to immerse myself into the frontline of change?”

Cunningham does have some advice for those who think they don’t have a voice or aren’t recognized.

“Don’t worry when you are not recognized but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

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