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For freshman members of Congress, January 3 feels a bit like first day of school

By Jessica Dean and Clare Foran, CNN

The 118th Congress will officially get underway Tuesday — and for freshman lawmakers, the transition can feel a bit like the first day of school.

New members are coming to Washington from all over the country and must now learn the ins and outs of Capitol Hill. That means learning how to navigate unfamiliar territory, and tackling a lengthy to-do list of new challenges.

The 118th Congress will be historically diverse, with record-setting numbers of women, Latino members and members who identify as LGBTQ. A record-breaking 149 women will serve in the House or Senate, including a record-breaking 42 Republicans.

At 35-years-old, Democrat Summer Lee is the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania. “I’m definitely nervous. It’s a big weight. I do not take lightly that I am going to Congress,” Lee told CNN.

“I’m honored to serve,” Lee said. “I want to be able to be me, so that people who are now thinking about whether they should ever run know that they don’t have to change who they are to be in this place.”

Monica De La Cruz is the first Republican and first woman to represent the 15th Congressional District of Texas. “I think, ‘wow, it’s happening. This is real and we’re about to enter a new phase of life,” De La Cruz told CNN, reflecting on what it feels like to be coming to Congress.

“It’s really a humbling thought for me. I just feel like I represent the American dream,” De La Cruz said. “In this great country, anything is truly possible.”

Since the moment they won their elections, both women say it’s been a flurry of logistics, hiring and planning as they prepare for this new chapter.

There’s the question of where they’ll live — Lee found a roommate in fellow incoming Illinois congresswoman Delia Ramirez.

“We kind of both just were like, ‘can you afford to live alone?’ So it was like an immediate connection on that one. We were really fortunate to find a place pretty quickly,” Lee said.

De La Cruz, a single mom to two teenagers, has yet to find a place in Washington, DC.

“There was a lot to do that I felt like I could put a pause button on my location. I’ll probably be sleeping in my office the first couple of months until I get better oriented with the city,” De La Cruz said.

The list of to-dos continues to be long, from hiring staff to learning how to get in the building.

“It was pretty tough — trying to find the right people that had the same vision that I had, that hopefully were from the district, that might be bilingual on top of that. Each person that we hired came with a very specific skill set that I felt would compliment my district,” De La Cruz said as she described the process.

As women in public office, both know that what they wear and how they present themselves will be scruitinzed.

“It is a different level of consideration — not even just between men and women, but for Black women. As Black women, we have different considerations for our hair. What is acceptable for our hair? How are we presenting ourselves?” Lee said.

All of these considerations along with excitement and nerves are part of the experience as new lawmakers gear up to start their new jobs.

“We’re leaving behind a life that we’ve known … and going into a new life. It’s not just myself as a congresswoman, it’s my children too who are also going into this new chapter of their life,” De La Cruz said. “I think it’s exciting but it can be overwhelming at moments too.”

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