Crystal Liu (Brookings John L. Thornton China Center)

The first month in DC, it was more like letting myself absorb the atmosphere as much as possible. I took a while to settle in, arranging things like setting a reading goal for the summer, finding a comfortable running route, deciding a workout plan, and forming a good group of friends. As the second month approached, I found myself already experienced in dealing with different situations at work, at home, or at networking scenes. Therefore, I let myself follow the rhythm and decided to explore DC more aggressively. And here follows are some quotes from my conversations with different people that I hold dearly to heart.

  •  The underlying principal of effective networking is to engage other people into your journey.
  • Take the chances to try cool things. You are young.
  • Build on the character in the time of chaos, and then you will be able to either deal with it gracefully or fight it back elegantly.
  • You are extremely lucky.

 

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Madison Blackstock (U.S. Trade Representative)

At moments it feels like I’ve been in Washington, DC for a lifetime. While it’s only been seven short weeks, with three more to go, I can’t help but begin to reflect on everything this city and my experience here have taught.

Professionally, I anticipated growth and hoped for a better idea of what career would be able to both engage me and allow me to best showcase my strengths. To my surprise, DC is a younger city than most, filled people not that far removed from myself and eager to help the next group of leaders. Through their guidance and listening to stories of their own experiences, I have a renewed excitement for the future – perfectly timed after a bit of a sophomore slump.

However, my experience in DC has been so much more than learning new professional skills. More than anything it’s been about learning myself. While here I’ve challenged myself in areas I may have previously avoided, for fear of doing something wrong or simple lack of experience. From something as simple as trying newer, healthier foods to opening myself up to a series of new ways of thinking; I now feel like a stronger, more well-balanced version of my previous self.

DC has given me a new worldview and a stronger personal insight that I’m eager to bring back to Vanderbilt.

Emma Stewart (Congressman Jim Cooper)

This summer I have been lucky enough to have not just one internship, but two. A little less than a month ago I packed up my stuff in Representative Kevin Yoder’s office, made the figurative trek across the aisle to and started working for Representative Jim Cooper. When I was applying for internships, I didn’t plan on doing two or working for both a Republican and a Democrat. But now that I am almost done with my summer in Washington, I know I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Coming into the summer, I was very nervous to have two different parties listed on my resume. I thought I needed to pick a side or else I was going to doom myself for any future employment because I had “worked for the enemy.” I thought I needed to take a stand one way or another if I was ever to make a real difference in our world. America’s party system is divided red and blue, so I felt like I had to be too. However, what I’ve learned is that the ability to see things from all angles and being open to other opinions is not a weakness, but a strength. And today, and rare one.

In my two months working in the House of Representatives, I have had a lot of time to reflect on what I believe and my vision for what America should be. Meeting with staffers, going to hearings, and talking to constituents on the phone I’ve been exposed to countless perspectives on issues I didn’t even know were issues. Sometimes, I completely disagreed with what people had to say. A few times, I had no opinion whatsoever. But all the time, I listened. If I have learned anything this summer, it is that a lot of problems in Washington could be solved if everyone just listened to each other a little more. Spending time on both sides of the aisle, I realized red and blue aren’t quite as different as they appear.

Looking back, it seems crazy to me that I was afraid I would never get hired again if I worked for both parties. This fear of being truly bipartisan is all part of the problem of modern party polarization. If I have any advice for someone who wants to work in Washington, take the risk and work for the other side. There’s a lot more to learn over there.

Emma Stewart and Cooper Interns

Alexandra (Allee) Smith (The Livingston Group)

The pivotal moment in my summer was when I stopped looking at my internship as a job but started seeing it as an opportunity. We all joined VIEW, the Vanderbilt Internship Experience in Washington D.C., in order to be a part of something more than our job. However, thinking about this type of experience and living this type of experience is very different.

For most of us, it took a learning curve to appreciate that, while we may provide free labor for a variety of relatively low-skill tasks, our respective organizations provide much more to us. They provide us exposure to a variety of topics, experience with new situations, perspective on the work force, advice for our potential career paths, and most importantly a network. The moment we saw past the daily tasks we were assigned, looked at what was going on around us, and became engaged – these were the moments where our internships became experiences.

This summer I have had the incredible opportunity of interning with The Livingston Group and with their lead partner in the International Practice area. Through this experience, I have learned a variety of skills and lessons that will stick with me for years to come. I have discovered new things about myself, my friends, and the work force that I will join in only 10 months! I made these discoveries by engaging in the network available to me and talking to anyone who was generous enough to share their time. Through these conversations I learned many lessons of which I will just name a few.

  •  Don’t make assumptions… about people, about your abilities, about your future, about anything.
  • Don’t ever let your ego get bigger than your work ethic. Be willing to work.
  • Do not ever talk badly about anyone. What goes around, comes around. You never know who that person may become in the future.
  • Ask questions (but do your research first).
  • Wish success for others so others will wish success for you.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Pass “the torch”. Everyone got to where they are today because of someone who helped them along the way. When given the opportunity, be that torch for someone else.

 

 

 

Brianna Moreno (U.S. Senator Marco Rubio)

This week I have had the opportunity to work for several staffers on different projects. One project I particularly enjoyed was compiling a comprehensive list of my boss’s work in the western hemisphere. Latin America has always been important to me, and my family has always emphasized the importance of strong relations between the United States and Central & South America. This project allowed me to see all the work the Senator has done in defending human rights in the area, particularly in places like Cuba and Venezuela. The people of these countries do not have the freedoms we enjoy here – if they speak out against their government they face prison, they cannot access food, they do not have the basic rights they should expect from their government. This is a reality my family has known and has always taught me to recognize. Being able to really see every thing the Senator has done for the betterment of others in these areas really made me realize I’m doing work I’ve always wanted to do.

Mckenzie Jones (Vanderbilt University Office of Federal Relations)

The Challenges to Changing Public Policy

Interning at Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations has allowed me to learn more about public policy and the challenges political organizations face when advocating for certain legislation. After attending First Focus’s 2016 Children’s Budget Summit and a briefing entitled “Building on the Child Tax Credit to Help All Children Thrive” hosted by the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation, I learned that even legislation aimed at fighting child poverty (something I’m sure everyone would agree is a good thing) can be mired by political controversy.

At the summit, Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist and CNN correspondent labeled the child poverty rate in America a “nightmare” and blamed common stereotypes many Americans hold regarding individuals in poverty for the lack of public support for social programs (i.e. SNAP, TANF, and the Child Tax Credit). Blow noted that because many Americans often view individuals in poverty as unmotivated and unintelligent, they oppose social programs in order to punish these individuals. Blow then ominously warned that efforts to punish parents inadvertently inhibit our nation from protecting its most valuable investment: its children. Blow’s words became all the more relevant when I attended the Child Tax Credit briefing the next day. Several panelists raised alarm concerning the risks children who grow up in poverty face: increased high school drop-out rates, increased incarceration rates, and greater likelihoods of becoming adults who live in poverty. After panelists advocated for eliminating the minimum wage earnings requirement in order to make the CTC more accessible to low and moderate income families with children, a member of the audience asked if panelists worried that by making the CTC more accessible they would breed a “victim culture” or sense among low-income parents that they are incapable of ever becoming financially independent.

Panelists eagerly replied, making the point that the majority of low income families want to be financially independent and thinking like his is holding our nation back. It ultimately surprised me that someone could mean well, but still hold implicit stereotypes about low-income families. While his question, which I’m sure was intended to emphasize the importance of widely celebrated American values like a strong work ethic and self-reliance, it ultimately revealed his assumption that once individuals living in poverty receive government assistance they will no longer feel the need to continue working towards financial independence. While I may simply be too young and optimistic, I ultimately believe that every parent wants to become financially-independent in order to ensure greater stability and success for their children, and that stereotypes – one size fits all labels – rarely have much accuracy. The discussion made me realize that often changing public policy is only half the battle; it seems one must change public sentiment first.

Mary Catherine Cook (Cassidy and Associates)

This weekend I went to a talk about the election at the Newseum. This museum offers six floors of exhibits all about the history and the influence of the press in the United States, beginning with the very founding of our republic and ending with today’s headlines. The museum had some amazing exhibits, including a piece of the Berlin wall, the first newspaper to print the Declaration of Independence, and a beam from the world trade center. At the talk, a Washington Post reporter was offering his opinions on Donald Trump’s choice of vice president, the power of the press in this particular election, and several other high profile topics to a packed audience. As I listened, I thought about all of the different veins of political influence pulsing through this city—from the White House all the way down to the legislative assistants in a representative’s office. The idea that all of this power resides in this one city that was built on a swamp never fails to amaze me, and I came away from the talk with renewed awareness of my power as a citizen to influence our political system. Going along with this thought, I attached this picture of me pretending to be a presidential candidate at the Museum of American History because, you know, an intern can dream.

Mary Catherine Presidential Candidate

Sophie Jeong (WAMU)

As of this Saturday, I have only two weeks left in my time here in Washington, D.C. Time has gone by really fast. As I reflect on my experience here, I realized the greatest takeaway from my time here was the networking opportunity.

During the first few weeks, I had so much time on my hand. After work, I worked out, caught up on various TV shows and just chilled the rest of the night. As I met new people and started going to events, my chilled evenings are nowhere to be found. I have to send follow-up emails, research background of the person I am going to meet the next day, search for fall internships, etc.

It gets overwhelming sometimes. After you work for eight hours, you still have work to do after work. But I’m so grateful because all these follow-up emails I sent paid off in the end. During my time here, I have met and talked to people working at CNN, NBC4, NPR and Gannett. Not just one person from each company, but multiple.

And when I say the “networking opportunity,” I don’t mean just professionals. I made a lot of friends with Vandy students whom I have never met otherwise. From the VIEW cohort to people who have already graduated from Vandy, I was able to make new friends and catch up with old ones. I already made plans with a couple of people I met here to host a Bachelorette night every Monday when we get back to campus.

Washington, D.C. has a lot of things to offer: politics, history, monuments and overpriced foods, but the best of all, it is the people that I met here that make me want to come back.

Hannah Johnsrud (Project on Middle East Democracy)

When I tell people I work at the Project on Middle East Democracy, I usually get one of two responses: “Oh, that’s very interesting, what’s going on in that area of the world?” or “Ha! That’s an awful lot of work you have on your hands.” Although I recognize the rather shallow nature of the kind of small talk that happens at networking sessions and metro stations, somehow these responses to my work leave something lacking. I should be used to it by now, because I get similar reactions when I tell people I’m a Middle Eastern Studies major (several extraordinarily uncomfortable interactions on planes come to mind.) Often, however, I find myself flustered and frustrated as I try to put to words my passion.

Perhaps my frustration arises from my own uncertainty. At the moment, these questions rattle around in my head as I consider what the effect of this summer will be and attempt to see some vague, foggy path towards a future. I know I want to do something with the Middle East, but I don’t seem to have a tangible response to these casual interrogations.

What’s going on in the Middle East? Why does ISIS exist? What’s the solution to the conflict? Truthfully, although I learn more every day, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t understand all or even part of the Middle East, and I don’t think I ever will.

Isn’t working on the Middle East depressing? Is democracy in the Middle East even possible? On days like these, when violence and injustice seem to be rocking our world, I can’t help but feel a little at a loss. I seem to have found a passion for a region that is interminably conflicted and misunderstood. And in the face of all of this pain, I begin to lose track of why I do what I do, where the meaning in all of this lies.

And then I remember sitting on the metro with my boss on our way back from a hearing, celebrating a small victory with a Hill staffer willing to support our work. I remember the words (verbatim) of a timeline I wrote in a letter sent by Congress members to Secretary of State John Kerry. I remember a room full of human rights defenders and policy makers discussing the situation in Bahrain and making an advocacy plan. I remember perhaps off-color laughter with my coworkers as we attempt to remain sane in this crazy work for a more democratic world. I remember a thousand gains I make a day in understanding the world around me, tiny mysteries and nuances teased out and untangled. I remember the simple joy of learning, and I embrace the knowledge that though I cannot remedy all the worlds’ problems, I can do something small to help.

And suddenly, it seems that even if I don’t have all the answers, I can respond to those innocent small talk questions with a sense of my deep passion and belief, strengthened by my everyday work at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Yalun (Aaron) Feng (Solar Electric Light Fund)

Aaron Feng and Mentor

Aaron and his alumni mentor Kirstie Kwarteng

Summer internship in DC breaks Vanderbilt college bubbles in Nashville and throws me into the real world for almost two months. DC is no longer the city I perceived last time as a tourist, with dozens of museums on the National Mall and tons of magnificent Roman-style buildings. It is a city packed with ambitious high-degree graduates, opportunistic businessmen, and fast-paced politicians. Different though they are, many of them share one thing in common – goal-oriented and pragmatic. To be honest, I enjoyed the fast environment very much at first as if I was immersed in a metropolis. There is always something happening here.

In DC, instead of going back home right away after finishing their work, young professionals go to happy hours at bars. I followed the rule – I went to several kinds of networking events – alumni-based, topic-based, and career-based. The networking event is like a bazaar, where you sell yourself to others. College students here are shaped by the environment to be very career-oriented and professional. I was told by a friend at Georgetown University that every other week they attend networking events tailored to young professionals in this city.

During one conversation, you are supposed to sell yourself in an attractive way, show genuine interests in others, and exchange your contact information. If you fail to find what you want to buy from the current conversation, feel free to move on strategically. Smart and pragmatic people here do not waste their time. During a two-hour networking event, you got to talk to up to twenty persons. You cannot avoid someone crashing in your conversation when you are talking. This is a free marketplace of human resources. At first, I was very nervous talking to people or asking them for name cards. However, I gradually learned from the experience – asking to grab a coffee to follow up.

Most people working in DC are somehow idealistic when they move here – they want to be the change of the US, or even the world. However, it is normal that you feel stressful and lost here – you do not know what you are doing and how it is relevant to your goal when you decided to move here. Fortunately, you are not alone. I have met many “successful” young adults admitting they surrender their dreams to the reality. In response, I would like to share a thought raised by a USAID expert in the international development with my idealistic friends. When you have choose between a high-paid job in World Bank and a field work job in Congo, go to Congo because the World Bank job won’t go away. But it will be costly to pursue your dream after you grow older and have a family to raise.