Maura Gillespie turns the corner beside her desk and unlocks a door to the balcony. Laid out below her, perfectly symmetrical, is the National Mall, with the Washington Monument rising like an exclamation point at the end of the expanse.
"People say it's the best view in D.C.," says the 22-year-old, who graduated last month from Loyola University Maryland.
Strictly speaking, the balcony does not belong to Gillespie. It goes with the office occupied by her boss, John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the highest-ranking Republican in the country.
While many of her peers struggle to figure out what's next, Gillespie is not only employed, but has spent much of the past year with a ringside seat to a changing of the guard in Washington power. She interned in Boehner's office last fall, when he was leading the minority party, and learned shortly after Republicans regained control of the House that she would be able to start a paid position in January.
She is stationed just outside the speaker's office door, where she controls traffic in and out and helps manage his correspondence.
Though Gillespie hails from a generation reputed to be cynical about politics, she seems not the least bit jaded about any of it. Instead, she talks with awe of traversing the same halls worked by generations of American power brokers.
"You walk to work and look up sometimes and say, 'Oh my God!'" she says.
"More than anything, I think she's marveling at watching politics happen right before her eyes," says Doug Harris, chairman of Loyola's political science department and a mentor to Gillespie. "She's still got the wonder of it all."
Gillespie had an advantage breaking into the Capitol Hill scene. Her uncle, Ed Gillespie, is a well-known political strategist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But once she was in the door as an intern, she earned her keep, says Amy Lozupone, Boehner's director of administrative operations.
"If she came here and did not do the job, we would not have brought her back," Lozupone says. "She caught my eye, and she caught the eye of the speaker. He said, 'I want her back.'"
Gillespie grew up in Marlton, N.J., where she liked to tell people she would become the nation's first female president. Her grandmother was the first woman elected to the local school board, and her uncle rose from Senate parking lot attendant to presidential adviser.
Though Gillespie was more athlete than politician in high school, her father saw the family strain in her.
"Maura has always taken positions on issues, sometimes to the consternation of her teachers in high school," says John Gillespie, an attorney in Marlton.
After her sophomore year at Loyola, Gillespie had to choose between a summer job in the House cloakroom and a political internship. Go to the cloakroom, her uncle advised her.
He knew that she could find no better vantage to make connections with congressmen and see how the place worked behind the scenes.
The summer of 2009 was an interesting time to be a young Republican, with most of her politically involved peers cheering Barack Obama's entry to the White House. Gillespie says she's not so partisan that she failed to appreciate the excitement over Obama.
In fact, one of her Capitol Hill thrills came when the president walked right by her after she watched him deliver this year's State of the Union from a House balcony.
"My mouth dropped like a codfish," she says.
From the cloakroom, Gillespie saw that Republicans and Democrats were not as antagonistic as they appeared on C-SPAN. "They could disagree on a bill and then walk out together," she says. "I love that."
Her enthusiasm made an impression on Boehner and others.
With the speaker's job looking like a strong possibility in fall 2010, Boehner's office needed all the help it could get. Gillespie took an unpaid internship and got to watch the veteran Ohio congressman make his ascent. She compares the feeling of election night, when Republicans decisively retook the House, to winning a big basketball game in high school.
"Talk about timing," Harris says. "She's a person who understands history, and it was so exciting for her to be near where it was happening."
In December, she learned that a permanent job was available, as long as she was willing to balance it with the five classes she needed to graduate from Loyola in May. She did her reading on the train to Washington, crammed in homework during lunch breaks and survived on four hours of sleep a night. She graduated with honors from Loyola.
"I wanted it," she says, explaining her prodigious balancing effort. "I knew this was where I was supposed to be."
Boehner took the speaker's office with promises of decentralizing power in the House and opening up floor debate on the most divisive bills. His approach fits Gillespie's idealistic view about how things should run.
"I certainly feel he's driving by a moral compass," she says of her boss. "It makes me excited to be a part of it, the way he's reforming the House."
Chatting on the speaker's balcony, Gillespie says she can't imagine working anywhere else. Maybe she'll operate behind the scenes like her uncle, or maybe she'll run for office. But she's a "Hill person," as Lozupone puts it.
Her father loves the way she talks about the place.
"Unless you approach government from a cynical point of view, you do feel that awe when you're there," he says. "I hope she will always be that way."