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One Year OutHot Times in the Old TownNick Vargish ’16 Goes to Washington

Nick Vargish ’16 says there’s no way he could have predicted that his first job out of college would land him on the front lines of battles over health care and investigations into reports of Russian meddling in the recent presidential campaign.

An international studies and Arabic major from Tacoma, WA, Vargish landed an internship in the office of Congressman Denny Heck, a Democrat from Olympia, WA, shortly after he graduated.

Nick Vargish ’16, staffer for Congressman Denny Heck.

Six weeks later, Vargish was offered a full-time job in Heck’s Washington, DC, office. His tasks include analyzing bills being considered by the House of Representatives Financial Services and Intelligence committees, hiring and training interns, and “general front-end office work.”

The job was challenging and rewarding before the presidential election, Vargish says, but it has “gathered a lot more momentum” since Donald Trump arrived in the White House. “During the first week of debate on the new health care bill, our office was flooded with calls from constituents,” Vargish says. “I took maybe 700 of those calls myself, and they were heart-wrenching. It was a profound experience hearing people tell me, ’If we lose our insurance, there’s no way we can survive as a family.’”

Vargish says one of his most memorable experiences came after then-FBI Director James Comey testified at a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on possible links between Russian operatives and members of the Trump campaign and White House staffs. Heck said the evidence Comey and others had presented was troubling and that it was incumbent on Congress to keep asking questions.

“After the Congressman spoke at the hearing, our phones started ringing off the hook from all over the country,” Vargish says. “I picked up one of the calls and it was a man from out of our districtArizona, I think. He told me how worried he was about the country. He said he was 70 and on Medicaid and hadn't seen anything like this ever in his lifethe immigration executive orders, the Russia investigations, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He said he was looking for hope and that he thought he had found it in what Congressman Heck had said, and then he started sobbing.

“It was an extremely powerful moment,” Vargish recalls. “It showed me that our job right now is to keep people hopeful. It crystallized my understanding of the importance of having a functioning government; the whole point of government is to serve the people, and if you’re hurting families instead, that’s not what government should be doing.”

“I’m privileged to be in an office with smart and hardworking people, working for a boss who has the same ideals as I do.”

Vargish says he chose Vassar because his sister Kate, a 2013 graduate, had enjoyed her experience there. He especially enjoyed courses he took from Hispanic Studies Prof. Andrew Bush, History Prof. Jonathan Schreier, and Assistant Political Science Prof. Samson Opondo. “Those classes really changed the way I think,” he says. “They taught me to understand how theory and data intersect and how to analyze dense material.” Vargish says those skills have enabled him to synthesize a lot of data quickly as he analyzes bills that Heck must decide whether or not to support.

While he’s sometimes frustrated to be part of the minority party in a government currently controlled by Republicans, Vargish says he’s been encouraged by the effectiveness of the system of checks and balances contained in the Constitution. “The judicial branch has stopped the overreach in some of the executive orders,” he says, “and the fight’s far from over for the health care bill. The Senate will craft its own version.”

Vargish says working in Heck’s office validated his decision to move to Washington and get into politics. “I’m privileged to be in an office with smart and hardworking people, working for a boss who has the same ideals as I do,” he says. “It’s made me even more invested in the work I’m doing.”