April 19 | Just this Monday, my Journalism in Washington class hosted guest speaker Jacob Scherr, a renowned climate change activist. He shared that the fluctuating weather in Washington of the past few weeks is not something he expects will change any time soon. Due to impacts of climate change, unpredictable weather patterns will become the new standard of Washington weather. While describing all too horrific impending doom caused by climate change, Jacob’s teachings pushed me to reflect on my semester here in Washington and, particularly, through the lens of the weather experienced.
A longtime Southern boy, I was ill prepared for the heavy snow that hit Washington our first few weeks here. I did not have a winter coat, boots, or even gloves to brace for the white frost pouring from the skies. Yet, I learned to embrace it. I adapted and became a professional at the almost mile hike from my off-campus apartment to the Metro station. Wiping snowflakes off my eyebrows became second nature.
But as Jacob taught us, these weather patterns couldn’t even last weeks. In late February, I would wear my giant winter coat on Tuesday and a short-sleeved T-shirt on Friday; I again felt ill prepared for the circumstances around me. I shipped in spring and summer clothes and forced myself to adapt again.
As the ban against transgender service members went into effect last week, my colleagues and I rallied at the Capitol Reflecting Pool to protest the President’s decision. Tasked with holding the HRC flag, I was pulled back by gusts of wind that unexpectedly arrived at the rally. As I stood directly behind House Representative Joe Kennedy, I felt like I was freezing to death, sporting a short-sleeved polo. After his speech, Representative Kennedy came right down the back steps and said to me, “Son, it looks like you need a jacket”.
He couldn’t have been more right. (Thankfully, a colleague lent me their sweater.) My journey of weather throughout my time in Washington is emblematic of the most valuable lesson I have learned: nothing is predictable. I entered the Washington Semester Program ready to embark upon a journalism career, and I am ending the semester more than thrilled to have confirmed a summer internship at a political consulting firm. To prospective students reading this, I want you to know that there is nothing I would have changed about my time here. Living off-campus gave me a glimpse of the lifestyle of a real world Washingtonian. My internship was valuable and introduced me to Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and a weather-attuned Rep Joe Kennedy. I made all the right friends and made the transition from tourist to resident. With these accomplishments under my belt, I believe that my greatest advantage was adapting to the unpredictable.
The unpredictable is when your Metro train is stuck on the rails for 10 minutes too long and it turns out you’re sitting next to the hiring manager of an internship for which you applied. It is fangirling outside of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s office and having her staffer invite you inside to meet her. It is being able to attend a Supreme Court hearing the first day Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the bench. It is leading a workshop on Palestine Advocacy Day and having a participant seriously offer the opportunity to run your congressional campaign.
The special thing about being in Washington is being caught up in the whirlwind of the storm. It has brought Senate hearings out of television screens and real issues out of textbooks to right before our own eyes. There are endless opportunities in this city, and the key to unearthing them is intentionality. If you find yourself spending lots of downtime in your residence hall or behind a desk at your internship without enough to do, ask your supervisor for more work or turn to any of the hundreds of Facebook events in Washington. The best experiences are not handed to us on a silver platter but actively sought out by ourselves. Intentionality breeds unpredictability. Being intentional about the situations you put yourself in—events around DC, difficult projects at your internship, meeting with class speakers—gives you the opportunity to experience some of the best of the city.
It has been a true pleasure to serve as an ambassador of this amazing opportunity. I am not leaving the city of Washington, but I am leaving this semester with a renewed sense of self. I believe that all of the gifts of this program enabled me to attain my dream internship this summer and will eventually jumpstart the career of my choice. Thank you, Washington Semester Program. I can’t wait to see whose lives you will change next.
April 8 | How I decided not to become a journalist:
Before I began my Washington semester, I really struggled with what courses I would take during my time here. My major advisors back at my home school, Tulane, gave me the liberty to take any courses remotely related to politics. However, looking at the WSP seminars offered, I felt that many of them looked a lot like courses I had either already taken or could take back at home, save for the journalism and business seminars. Courses in the business school at Tulane are primarily only open to business majors. On the other hand, journalism classes are rarely offered at my university. I knew that I was in between multiple career paths, some of which related to business and journalism, and that the opportunity to take either subject in my Washington semester might help me solidify my career goals. With a leap of faith, I took the journalism course.
With the start of my spring internship in January, the pressure to find another internship for the summer rapidly came down. Before I could even get settled at the Human Rights Campaign, I quickly had to decide what kind of organizations I would want to intern at over the summer and, more broadly, what kind of organizations I wanted to work at after graduation. I started off the semester by applying exclusively to journalism internships. I figured that the exposure to multiple newspapers, radio stations, and press hubs through my WSP Journalism in Washington seminar could give me a shot to land an internship at any of the sites we would visit. Little did I consider whether or not I would actually enjoy a career in journalism.
From our first class visit at POLITICO, I felt energized and inspired by the rapid pace of journalism and the excitement of being at the forefront of the political future. This felt like the most important career in the world, and I could not even comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to be a journalist. However, it became clearer to me as our class visited more and more media outlets. At first, I thought it might just be the few journalists we were meeting, characterized by prolonged uncertainty, dogged competitiveness, and a bolstered ego to get them through work that day. Then I arranged informational interviews over coffee with a few of our class speakers and other journalists in the city and found that many of them did not enjoy their career. In fact, most of them were looking for a way out. I gave the field the benefit of the doubt and continued steadfast in applying to summer journalism internships.
Next came our journalism class’ first assignment, a news feature. This was what I had been waiting for: a chance to bring my love for writing to something I could show future employers to prove my skill set. My topic of choice was the role of race in Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, something that was of particular interest to me as a South Asian. I had to conduct three interviews, and I reached out to six different organizations and experts for the piece. The odds should have been in my favor. Hopefully, at least half would get back to me. I was three days away from my deadline. None had gotten back to me. I scrambled. I begged. I called office after office just pleading for one quote or another. People began to ignore my calls, treat me with disrespect, and refuse to give me the time of day. I spent the whole night writing a hard-hitting piece with minimal information. I turned in something that I knew did not address the topic I had wanted to explore. I felt like I had lost my integrity in trying to make a deadline. The idea of doing this for the rest of my life seemed bleak. Now, here I was, already halfway through summer the internship application season with not a clue what kind of summer experience I wanted to apply to.
I took some time out and broke down what had drawn me to journalism in the first place. It was the creativity, job stability, and the notion that it was greater than myself. These were at the root of why I wanted to pursue journalism, and none of them had anything specific to do with the career itself. While I pondered this on my own, I also looked to people around me such as my coworkers at my internship, other young professionals I met throughout the city, and even people I cold messaged on LinkedIn who seemed to have enticing careers. I reassessed my career goals and began to discover a passion in a field I hadn’t even known existed before this semester: political communications. From my discussions with the people around me, my dream job is now becoming a political speechwriter. When I had met with political speechwriters in the area, I found that many of them found their way to the field through journalism, but almost all recommended I begin through the communications field. I received key advice on how to pitch myself to hiring managers without a communications major and how to best utilize my last year of undergrad to achieve the career I want.
I cannot say I know where I will be interning this summer. After interviewing at multiple political communications firms, I do know that what has advanced me to second rounds and made me stand out is my grasp on the future. WSP has been truly formative in my realization of that. While it is scary to outline future plans and career aspirations, I have found that in this internship search, that is what continually makes my interviews stronger. Fingers crossed, it lands me a summer internship, too.
While I won’t be becoming a journalist specifically, a number of the skills I learned in my Journalism in Washington class are transferrable to fields outside of journalism. And in a personal way, the course has been one of the most impactful I have ever taken throughout my college career. Just as internships, classes, and experiences are valuable in showing us what we want to do, they are just as beneficial in showing us what we don’t want to do.
March 13 | I come to you after the end of an immensely stressful two weeks: midterms seasons and the 2019 HRC Equality Convention. I felt like I was prepared to tackle my midterms here in Washington with little difficulty, as I considered myself a seasoned academic now in my junior year. However, I failed to acknowledge that I hadn’t taken a real exam since May of 2018 since I studied abroad last semester. My American Politics midterm was nothing cruel nor unusual but embodied a classic examination that required some good old fashioned buckling down. Following that week was our spring break, which I had spent here in Washington-- though not for the typical DC spring tourist activities.
The culmination of my internship experience thus far has been in the 2019 Equality Convention hosted by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). It is the largest annual gathering of all our board members, major donors, and key volunteers. As my boss, HRC president Chad Griffin, so eloquently put it, it’s the “queer Oscars.” My tasks this semester primarily involved the planning and execution of this high-stakes event. The convention lasted four days, and HRC paid for me to stay at the five-star hotel where it took place in downtown DC. I spend those four days advocating for LGBTQ rights, catering to the needs of our board members, and running a conference of over five hundred attendees. I was one of a three-person team who executed the entire convention.
The Equality Convention is an annual event, distinguishing the third meeting of our Board Members of the fiscal year. But this time all the subsidiary board members and key volunteers were also invited to dictate the future of HRC in the coming year. All this makes the Equality Convention one of the most high-stake events hosted by the non-profit every single year. Key decision makers travelled from all across the nation to both debate their own priorities for the LGBTQ community as well as learn from the advocacy and expertise of their colleagues. As the spring intern for the executive office, I was tasked with many of the organizational aspects of the convention and acted as the first face of all immediate attendee needs. For the convention, I had coded an app (having no prior computer science experience), learned how to personalize 500+ nametags with the most minimal clicks, and organized overlapping schedules of hundreds of people. Just prior to the start of our convention, I had worked with my colleagues at HRC to introduce the Equality Act into Congress, which, if passed, would guarantee full federal equality to all LGBTQ people nationwide. Needless to say, those were a big two weeks.
Feeling the weight of not only my midterm grades but also of the success of my HRC tasks and their potential implications for millions of Americans was a lot of pressure all at one time. It was time for some self-care via a classic DC sunset.
Just as I consider myself a seasoned academic, I also consider myself a seasoned sunset watcher. From the sandy shores of Asilah, Morocco, to the swampy greens of the Mississippi River in New Orleans to the sky-high rocks above the Chattahoochee in Georgia, nothing beats capturing the perfect sunset. My best advice is to arrive far earlier than the internet tells you when the sun will set and plan to stay far later than when it actually goes down. And most importantly: be in amazing company.
On the solitary Wednesday between the end of all my midterm assignments and the beginning of the 2019 Equality Convention, it was a temperate seventy degrees outside, and the clock hit 5:30. The world was in my favor, and the chase began.
What I once thought was a unique discovery of my own, I now realize is one of the most popular sunset spots in all of DC. However, let me be the one to tell you why. Count to 16. Then remember who the sixteenth president was. And then go to his memorial statue. About a fourth of a mile down from the Lincoln Memorial is a grey marble staircase facing our famous Potomac River. Here, the sky meets the river in a romantic rendezvous. The sun drips onto the river like ice cream down your chin, and it is as if all your cares in the world slip away.
As I sat next to my great company, watching my familiar friend the sun dip back into nighttime, I was a rushed with a swift reflection of my semester in Washington. I had just reached the halfway point of my time here, and the sunset was an all too ironic representation of the growth that I have been lucky to witness. As the sun was quickly fading into nothingness, my anxieties about my future career, my feeling of lacking professional experiences, and my obsession over academic success seemed to, too.
There is something truly special about the various climates of DC. The work climate and then the one right outside the window: they are two sides of a coin, one never looking like the other. The rush and the competitiveness of the professional world can feel stifling. Yet, DC is also a city that understands relaxation, routinely offering you some of the most beautiful sunsets. As the weather begins to get warmer, the city invariably gives its residents a reminder to cool down. While my academics and my internship may have seemed stressful, the weeks leading up to these events made me sure and unsure about all the best things in the most unexpected ways. It is when I see a reflection of yellow amber lights in my circular sunglasses or have a heartfelt conversation with an HRC donor about the impact of our advocacy that I bear witness to my own growth. My typical courses back at my home school have been rewarding, but my DC experiences have challenged me in new ways. And for that, and for a DC sunset, and for fighting for equal rights two days after taking a midterm, I am forever grateful.
February 25 | There were sunrays beaming in through the left corridor window, and I had just enough of a coffee buzz to keep me going through the afternoon. The day was seemingly perfect; I had just finished the arduous task of analyzing the budgets of each department within the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and I felt on top of the world. I tucked this 500-page packed binder underneath my arm and marched confidently to the elevator. My supervisor is going to be so proud, I thought. I pressed the button… ding! came the elevator, and the parallel doors slid apart to reveal only One. Other. Person. Oh god, no.
This had become my worst nightmare at my internship: elevator talk. There were so many ways for it to go wrong, and my internship with the Executive Office of HRC required me to communicate with a lot of people on a lot of different floors. It was always too much small talk or not enough talk at all or the awkward eye contact; I dreaded it. I took a deep breath, walked in with my best foot forward, and enacted one of my go-to strategies: asking about their weekend.
I had a mastered a tiered stratum of different approaches to avoiding elevator disasters. It was based upon how much I needed my fellow occupants to like me, what day of the week it was, and how much coffee I had drunk earlier. This may seem ridiculous, but after a major awkward encounter with presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in the HRC elevator, this strategy became my closest work colleague.
This past Thursday, during my American Politics class visit to the Creative Community of Nonviolence (CCNV) homeless shelter, I had to quickly enact a different version of my elevator talk strategy. One of the directors of the shelter was leading us up the stairs, and I could feel the uncomfortable quiet begin to bubble in the air, and so I turned to Strategy F: ask about the surroundings. When I asked him about the mural in front of us, a man kissing a little girl on the forehead, he told me that it was painted by a resident who had lost custody of his child due to his homelessness.
My heart sank immediately and the world around me rapidly came into greater perspective. Just a day prior, I had been in the elevator with the HRC communications director joking about how the new Hawaiian Poke place down the street tastes like gentrification, and now here I was in the shelter for the victims of it. When I first learned about our trip, I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of going to a homeless shelter as a class, as if these people’s oppression was a spectacle for our education. The fact was that I could walk into this homeless shelter, feel bad for the individuals living there for about an hour, and then go back to my apartment and resort to my privileged life. As we walked into the makeshift conference room where the director was about give us a talk, I had a knot in my stomach.
I wanted to go home, but I let my discomfort continue. From my social activism experiences, I had learned that not only should we feel uncomfortable, but we should also ask ourselves why we feel uncomfortable, and so I did. Rico, the executive director of the shelter, described the transformation he had been witnessing here in D.C. With great sorrow, he recounted how H Street used to be a black family community, where people could gather around the Giant supermarket and find all their favorite ingredients. He would walk down the street, see his grandmother, walk down another block, see his middle school best friend: all he had ever wanted, right there. It all changed about a decade ago when the ‘yuppies’, as Rico dubbed them, moved into cheap housing in the area and priced out the families who had lived there forever. It wasn’t that the occupants of the homeless shelter couldn’t find jobs to keep them housed; it was that they couldn’t find homes because the people of my generation and older had priced them out.
I realized my discomfort was more than just going to a homeless shelter on a class trip, it was discomfort in actually confronting the systems to which I contribute. As a soon-to-be young professional, I struggle with the desire to move into cheap urban housing and feeling a moral obligation to fight the waves of gentrification. I am grateful that CCNV made me feel uncomfortable in all the right ways. And unlike finding elevator strategies to avoid social discomfort, I am seeking strategies to confront social injustice head-on.
February 13 | It was exactly 9:44 AM when I looked down at my phone and saw the POLITICO news notification: “The Supreme Court allows… [Trump’s] plan to restrict military service by transgender people.” I was merely fourteen minutes into my fourth day at my internship with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The only word that came to my mind was one that is probably not appropriate for this platform and as I peeked my head over my cubicle, it was evident that this word was the same thought of many of my co-workers.
It was then 9:47 AM when the fifth floor completely transformed from a dismal disarray of a Tuesday work morning to passion exploding out of people committed to the pursuit of the civil rights of LGBTQ people. Loose sheets flew off the desks around me, and my colleagues were running office to office, delegating tasks of immediate activism. I could barely catch my breath as behind me we had staff pleading to Congressmen and women and in front of me, a telephone I barely knew how to operate was ringing without stop with calls from concerned citizens.
10:00 AM and the office was deserted. You would walk into this Rhode Island Avenue building and think there was an all staff skip day. But this staff was far from ditching. They had spread themselves all over D.C., meeting with lawyers, protesting outside of Supreme Court, and catching flights to be with some of the most notable veterans of the transgender community. I sat at my desk, drafting an e-mail to our board members, ready to encompass the feelings of the past fifteen or so minutes, but my mind was elsewhere: sitting at a desk in Morocco a few months prior, contemplating whether to accept this internship or not.
I applied to the HRC internship on a whim. I had fallen into social activism many times throughout my life and not usually by choice but due to a sense of responsibility to the marginalized communities to which I belong. Working for HRC made sense, and while I was travelling throughout Morocco as a study abroad student, securing the ‘perfect’ internship was quite low on my personal priorities. So, I applied and I received an offer, but I was incredibly apprehensive about accepting it.
Running through my mind were all the criticisms that have been brought against the Human Rights Campaign—their corporate interests, fixation on cisgender white gay men and women, and reluctance to collaborate with grassroots LGBTQ movements in the past. Accepting this internship felt like a kick in the face to all my morals about intersectional activism. Yet, it also felt like an opportunity to reap real rewards of a dedication to social justice. It was my chance to be in the big leagues of non-profit organizing.
Now, after my first three weeks in D.C., I continue to wrestle with the same tension of opposites. I ride the red line to work every day, confused by the people around me. My idealism wants me to believe that, yes, these are the public servants of our nation, actively working for a better civil society. However, I find myself swirling in the networking whirlwind of professionalism. I do not want to meet someone on the metro or at an embassy or at a bar and have them see me only as a connection, as a rung on their own ladder to career success. Sometimes I find that this is what intern culture is and if I want to hold a powerful position with agency that this is what I must do: network, coffee, network, job. But then, sometimes I find that I am fifteen minutes into work and I am already in the epicenter of the most meaningful progressive changes.