Reece in front of a mosaic wallReece Downey
Internship: Human Rights Campaign

At thirteen weeks in, I think it is safe to say that DC has changed the way I think about myself and my future.

Coming into this program, I was incredibly focused on the potential connections I could make, what kinds of opportunities I could come across, and the numerous possible doors to open and pathways down which to wander. And don’t get me wrong, those daydreams and expectations were handily met within the first days and weeks of classes. As well as within my internship, I was plunged into the non-profit world where, thanks to an intentionally designed program at HRC, we got to put our hands and minds into the institutional and programmatic work that produces the headlines that we read every day. But I think that ultimately, I came into my Washington Semester with the wrong mind frame. So, in an attempt to boil down thirteen of the most important weeks of my entire academic career, here are some things that I have learned.

  1. There is no formula that leads to success, and no handshake that can guarantee your future. Coming from a first-generation low-income (FGLI) background, it’s hard not to let the pressure of having “a plan” consume your every move. I’m constantly worrying if I have done enough. Not only that, I spend a lot of mental energy trying to line up my entire future, every detailed move, to guarantee that whatever comes next is sustainable, worthwhile, and rewarding. Or I start to see people as opportunities, and opportunities as the cure-all for my stress. But what DC has taught me is that you must let your passions become the core of your pursuit for the future. The sole fact of being present in the already incredible accomplishment and opportunity that is higher education is more than enough. You don’t have to go hard; you just have to go. With so many windows into such a variety of disciplines and lifestyles, it won’t take long to find a place for your passion here.
  2. Experiences don’t always have to translate to bullet points on your resume. Along the same lines, not everything that I do needs to be turned into professional skills or a key building block for some future job. Coming into this program hoping for just a polished resume and a network of references is missing the point. To be completely honest, the most rewarding parts of this program are not in the tangible, day-to-day experiences that drew me in. Instead, what I’ll be leaving with is a completely different vision of myself and what I deem myself capable of.
  3. Never be afraid to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing Anyone that comes into this program that claims they have a plan and they know where they’re going after they graduate is probably lying to themselves. Don’t let the guy who’s had seven internships and ambitions for law school intimidate you. It took me a long time to convince myself that the doubt and uncertainty floating around in my head was the same headspace that everyone was trapped in, no matter their outward projection. There’s no one thing to blame these feelings for except being human. Upon realizing that, approaching a professional in a field you’re interested in seems way less intimidating. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, only missed opportunities to learn more about yourself. Furthermore, understanding that you don’t need to know everything makes walking into that job interview all the more empowering.

    There are innumerable chances to put yourself out there in DC. And no single one of these chances are a guaranteed success story. If you are willing to work to understand where your passions lie and have an earnest energy to learn about yourself, this program will take you somewhere that no picture can capture, and no combination of words can summarize.

Blog History

Annapolis streetReece Downey
Foreign Policy

November 11 | Last weekend some friends and I decided to rent a car and drive out to Annapolis for the day. Being in DC, it’s hard not to get antsy about all the different possibilities for spontaneous day trips. For us, we wanted to go somewhere a little off the beaten path, somewhere that we probably wouldn’t think of going if we weren’t already nearby. So, Annapolis was the way to go.

Driving there was certainly an adventure. We rode the metro up to Shady Grove where we picked up the rental and off we went. It was pouring rain for nearly the whole drive, but a quick stop at Taco Bell and belt-able 80’s anthems kept us chugging along. Since I was in charge of music, I had to throw in some Abbey Road here and there.

Reece with friends in AnnapolisNo Sunday drive is complete without a little Beatles to round it all out. After meandering around the State House for a while (where George Washington gave his resignation speech to Congress) and meandering in and out of shops along the pier, we hopped in the car once more to check out Sandy Point State Park. And let me tell you, it was exactly the breath of fresh air that I needed. Letting go of the fact that 67 degree weather at the end of October is at the very least a little disconcerting, strolling along the beach, hopping across rocks, and removing ourselves from the sound of the city was a well-appreciated experience.

On the drive back home, once those of us in the back got a quick power nap in, we were bubbling with talk about the next trip to take. Philly? New York? Boston? Now that we have a good footing in the area, exciting friendships to revel in, and a burning appetite to experience it all – along with the end of the semester looming over us – DC feels like the exact place that I need to be.

Reece with friendsI could go on about all of the amazing things that I have seen, the fantastic opportunities I have had, and the wonderful insights I have discovered about myself during my semester here. Being able to hear from and directly ask the very people who “run the show” in DC, and by extension the political world, is what I’ve been craving since Poly Sci 101 in Grinnell. And don’t get me wrong, I will absolutely relish in those moments, and keep pushing myself to engage myself more and more as the semester starts to wrap up. But what I’ve already found in talking to family and friends back home, that isn’t always what I’m the most excited to share about. I didn’t expect to be sharing stories where the same names pop up, that those around me become such key players in my story. Which writing that now sounds ridiculous, of course my friends and classmates and fellow interns in the program would have an impact on me. It’s just that when you can get past worrying about editing your resume and having enough business cards to hand out, you get to find something that you probably won’t find anywhere else.

Reece at Human Rights Campaign headquartersReece Downey
Foreign Policy

October 21 | This program has broken me out of my normal thinking and study habits, and it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. With each seminar week being so different but still so engaging, and an internship that constantly checks my writing and critical thinking skills, every week I can feel myself growing as an academic and as a person. My foreign policy class has put us right at the heart of international news headlines. We just spent the past couple weeks studying the Middle East, learning about key stakeholders, historical background, and US relationships with important regional powerhouses like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and more. Every class session is a deep dive on any given geopolitical topic, followed up by meetings with experts in the field. Just this last week, we got to ask a former chief of staff under John Kerry, a policy expert on the Middle East with first-hand experience in the field, what his thoughts were on the Trump administration pulling troops out of Syria just days after it happened in real time. During the day I get to study what’s happening in the world around me, and as I read the news, I get to see the fruits of my work in class come to life in the middle of a New York Times article.

Reece at a protest in DCLiving in DC means that I get to put myself in the center of history. Or sometimes my internship puts me there. Last Tuesday, I stood with friends, co-workers, allies, and fellow LGBTQ community members out front of the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States. That day, judges were hearing oral arguments for three key LGBTQ discrimination cases, deciding if sexual orientation and gender identity deserve protection status. As I stood in the middle of the crowd, shouting “trans rights are human rights” alongside powerful advocates, knowing that this court case will appear in newspapers and textbooks for years to come, it was difficult to reckon with the fact that I would summarize the entire event in a single bullet point for my internship class’ billable hours log.

But I realized then that this program is full of moments like this. To participate in a political rally for your internship, to take notes on Middle East foreign policy implications from someone who worked in the White House, to read the day’s headlines impeachment processes as I pass the Capitol building on my commute completely alters my perception on the world and how I study it. Whether I’m in DC or the middle of a corn field in Iowa, the influx of news and events that I study, no matter how grand or abstract, have immediate impact and a local origin. When I go back to Grinnell, I hope that the words I choose to represent my experiences here can fully encapsulate how I have changed the way that I think about myself and my future.

Washington Semester ambassador Reece Downey by a sign that says Reece Downey
Foreign Policy

October 7 | It has been a wild two weeks. As I write this, I’m feeling relief, excitement, and maybe a little overwhelmed, but in the best way possible.

This Saturday, I dropped my first album with my band from home, Fall From Space (check us out on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever else you listen to music!!...... please). Preparing for its release, along with the various projects, readings, and papers I wanted to get a head start on, I decided a study day off campus was well in order. My remote work excursion took me to the lawn in front of the Capitol building, where for a study break, I could venture over to the National Botanical Gardens.

Bright green leaves with red berriesWhile I meandered through the garden, stopping to learn about different kinds of dirt from Georgia, I felt a strange sense of ease in a rather hectic moment. In my schedule, in my workload, I often get a little tangled in myself, but this moment I could feel myself untangling and absorbing my surroundings in the city. I don’t get those moments all the time, but for some reason looking at a tube full of dirt, listening to the final mixes of my music, with the Capitol looming over my shoulder, I decided to accept the absurdness. There will always be work to be done, things to do, various crises to make me question myself and what I’m doing, but this program so far has taught me that those are just passing moments, just like the feeling of ease I had in the garden.

Reece with colleagues next to a sign that reads This past weekend I also spent several hours setting up and working at the Human Rights Campaign’s 23rd Annual National Dinner. The event aims to raise money, attention, and awareness for the organization’s efforts and key policy advocacy. This year was particularly lively, emotional, and maybe a little somber at times. Nineteen transgender women have been killed in the United States this year alone, something that we collectively reflected on throughout the night. Along with this, it feels as though for the LGBTQ community things have been moving backwards, just a few short years after the landmark marriage equality victories. So, to be in that room, ending just my third week interning with HRC, I guess you could say that overwhelming is a bit of an understatement.

United States CapitolBut to be surrounded by literally thousands of queer people, and to work with queer folk all weekend was something I had never experienced before. As a bisexual guy from the middle of Iowa, this wasn’t something I thought existed. Nor did I think that I could belong in something like that. I saw for myself a (limited) number of ways to express one’s sexual identity through my narrow lens in high school and made the decision that none of those were for me. I just don’t belong in any sort of queer community, or rather I don’t need one, given that I feel as though I don’t fit into any one neat category. Attending this national dinner, I couldn’t be happier to have been proven wrong. This weekend taught me a few things about my identity, such as my privilege in being able to live hetero passing, but also having the emotional and mental space to perform such self-analysis. But within that is years of repression, defining myself within a socially learned “should-be” rather than a self-defined “want-to-be.” That’s about as far as I’ve gotten in rethinking myself for this week. We’ll see what happens next time.

Washington Semster Ambassador Reece DowneyReece Downey
Foreign pOLICY

September 23 | My three-week intro to life in D.C. has so far taught me a few things about myself as well as my academic, professional, and personal outlook. I came to AU expecting to dive into an intensely enriching internship, narrowly focused and engaging coursework, and a city experience that will always keep me moving. These three things do in fact ring true. What I didn’t account for were how I expected these things to radically change my life. Rather, I expected them to become my life, subbing in for my normal work habits and personal life that I’ve spent the first twenty years of my life attempting to develop. But what I’ve learned so far is that in unpacking these intense expectations, you cannot survive new challenges that aren’t in tune with your existing present self. My first lesson is that personal investment is finding not only a way to make my routine work but fitting my already normalized routine into my work. That’s been a life saver.

Washington Semester Program Students on a Site Visit at the CATO InstituteI’m from Indianola, Iowa, a small town just south of an emerging urban setting that has left me craving more. In searching for schools my senior year of high school, I was looking for the biggest, most exciting cities with a campus culture to match. After months of agonizing deductions and crunching the numbers, I finally decided on, of all places, Grinnell College. Another small town in the middle of nowhere Iowa. But what I found there was rich, engaging academics, vibrant campus life, and a support system that helped fuel my passion for travel and politics, all of which lead me to what turned into a full year of off-campus study. And for me, D.C. was the obvious choice to begin my adventure.

Washington Semester Program students on a site visit at the CATO Institute pose for a selfieReturning to my major life revelation above, I’ve already been able to find a groove that works for me. Rather, AU, my internship, and the people around me seem to be in tune with the groove that I brought with me, and I have eagerly begun to explore what these opportunities mean for me. I’m interning with the Human Rights Campaign, working with the Global team, putting together internal news blasts, research digests, and whatever other publication projects I can get my hands on. Back on campus, I look forward to my days out with my seminar, exploring the city’s vast array of embedded political and international institutions culture, all the while growing closer to my classmates via complaints about our long commutes. I’ve even dug a little into the city, renting rehearsal space over near Bloomingdale to practice my drum chops, stopping over in the Eastern Market for some Serbian brunch, and doing my best Captain American impression while jogging around the Reflecting Pool. Coming here for the semester, I was thinking too hard about what D.C. could possibly do for me. Now, all I can think about is how I can get the most of me out of D.C.