Sarah in Pittsburgh for a conference about Latin AmericaSarah Coker
Foreign Policy

April 8th, 2019 | Being in D.C. is not only great because of the many museums, organizations, and events that are based here but also because it is a large enough city that prominent people tend to visit pretty frequently. This weekend I attended a concert of my favorite Cuban musician (and favorite musician in general) at the Blues Alley Club in Georgetown. Daymé Arocena is known for her rhumba rhythms and was even featured in a Tiny Desk Concert with NPR. When I left my internship at the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) this past summer, my supervisor gifted me a vinyl of her album, and I’ve been obsessed with her music ever since. I met Daymé while studying abroad last semester when she held a discussion with my group at our assistant director’s house but had yet to see her perform live, so I was elated to find out she would be visiting and performing in D.C. this spring!

Her first set was incredible. Daymé is a very dynamic performer who likes to involve the audience and have them dance and sing with her. Afterwards, I ran into some current and former colleagues. One of them introduced me to Daymé’s pianist, and we ended up hanging out upstairs with the band before their second set. When Daymé came upstairs, I showed her the tattoo that I had gotten in Havana based on the lyrics “my heart is open still it is an ocean” from her song “Maybe Tomorrow.” The song and lyrics meant a lot to me because they guided me through a time of self-doubt while I was studying abroad, and Daymé herself inspires me a lot. She is the most alive person I think I’ve ever met, with such a playful yet powerful spirit, and she inspires me to be myself but more purposefully, more loudly. Daymé was incredibly enthusiastic and honored that I had chosen to have such a permanent reminder of her work! During her second set she played “Maybe Tomorrow” and gave me a shout-out, which was an incredible gift that meant so much to me. It was a moment that reminded me, more than ever, that this, that Cuba, is what I want to be doing with my life in some form or another.

Sarah speaking at the Latin American Social and Public Policy ConferenceAfter a late night enjoying Daymé and her band’s incredible music, I woke up the next morning, threw a weekend’s worth of clothes and other items in my suitcase, and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

On Friday and Saturday, I attended the Latin American Social and Public Policy conference at the University of Pittsburgh, where I presented a paper that I co-authored with a former colleague from CDA. Our work examined non-traditional channels for mobilization in Cuba and their impact on Cuban society as related to the country’s recent constitutional debate. While at the conference, I was able to network and learn more about what earning a PhD in Latin American Studies is like. The conference was an amazing learning opportunity in other ways as well, with a mix of ungraduated and graduate students from all over the world in attendance. I not only learned a lot from the content of the research that others presented but also from their research methods and how they presented their work.

Latin American Social and Public Policy Conference UPittDuring lunch, I chatted with a fellow presenter who explained that he is studying Venezuelan migration to Peru. Using my knowledge from my current internship at WOLA, I discussed with him the dynamics of Venezuelan migration and the difference between Venezuelan migration to Peru versus to Colombia, such as whether the two host countries have similar policies and practices in relation to taking in migrants. I also happened to meet a current PhD candidate from American University who presented some research that was very similar to a research project I conducted a few years ago. We plan to get together to chat further now that we’re both back in D.C. I feel so lucky that my participation in the Washington Semester Program (WSP) has allowed me to gain confidence in my networking skills!

On the second day of the conference, with my presentation out of the way and after having attended another full day of other scholars’ presentations, a few other presenters and I decided to go out and explore Pittsburgh, a city we were all visiting for the first time. We rode a funicular (an old cable car that took us up a nearly vertical slope) up the Duquesne Incline and took in the views from the top. There we met a man who was previously a tour guide and who explained to us that this mode of transportation was used to transport people who lived up on the mountain down to the city below from the late 1800s until the 1960s, when it was turned into what is now a popular tourist attraction. Our unofficial tour guide also shared with us that there are 446 bridges in Pittsburgh, which is more than there are in Venice, Italy! After taking in the views, we headed back down and took the Pittsburgh Light Rail (the T), Pittsburgh’s version of a subway, across the river and into downtown. We spent the evening exploring the city and eating dinner at an Irish pub.

Sarah with group in PittsburghIt was exciting to connect and spend the weekend with so many others interested in Latin America, and I’m grateful to my internship and WSP professor for being flexible with my schedule which allowed me to attend the conference. They always have my best interest in mind and want to help facilitate as much learning as possible within and outside the classroom and the workplace.

As I head into my last month with the Washington Semester Program at American University and with my internship at WOLA, I look forward to enjoying the beautiful spring weather and preparing for my graduation from home institution in May. Although I’m not yet in a position to share details, I am on-track to return to D.C. as a newly minted graduate who will work full-time on the issues she is passionate about. I am confident that WSP and WOLA both helped put me in this position of being ready, able, and prepared to begin this new journey. They have both contributed immensely to my growth as a person, an academic, and a young professional.

Blog History

Sarah working at WOLA front deskSarah Coker
Foreign Policy

March 25th, 2019 | As if time didn’t already feel like it was flying by, this past week I received a message from my home school reminding me that I graduate in two months! Because I was abroad in the fall, I’ve been away from Skidmore College for my entire senior year, which in many ways makes me feel like I’ve already graduated. I think that the transition of graduating will be an easier one because the Washington Semester Program has allowed me to have one foot in the world of college classes and the other in the working world as opposed from jumping entirely from one into the other.

Over spring break, I really felt like I was in the working world since I stuck around and went in to my internship every day instead of my usual three days a week. Things were even busier than usual because of some turnover at my organization, but I’ve been learning a lot! I met my new communications supervisor in-person for the first time last week, and she’s already taught me how to optimize our website publications for search engines and social media, had me fact-check a document for our Mexico team, and has been having me draft tweets for WOLA’s main Twitter.

WOLA press hit listOne unexpected advantage of having been so heavily involved in social media at two non-profits now is that I’ve found ways to translate the skills I’ve used when posting for an organization to posting on my personal Twitter. This happened accidentally at first. When I began working at my past internship, I made sure to follow most of the same people and organizations that their official Twitter followed because I wanted my Twitter feed to be mostly about Cuba and because it would make curating Cuba news for their weekly news brief easier. That led me to retweet, like posts from, and pop up on the radar of the kinds of people and organizations I wanted to network with. I’ve also learned the value of tweeting about events that I attend and including relevant hashtags and the Twitter handles of the people and organizations that were there in order to attract more views, since that’s something I do for my organization. Long story short, it turns out that marketing an organization on social media can help teach you how to market yourself to potential employers and networking contacts.

I think I’m also beginning to crack the code on the “what do you want to learn?” or “what do you hope to get out of this internship?” questions thanks to my current internship. As someone who is interested in and excited about learning anything and everything I possibly can, I’ve sometimes struggled with these questions. It occurred to me the other day, however, that there is actually a logical reason why they sometimes trip me up: they are usually asked, understandably, during the interview or on the first day, when I have an idea of the mission and the kind of work the organization does but not the everyday tasks.

After gaining experience in the working world, I’ve developed a strategy that has helped me better articulate my learning goals when I take on a new job or position. First, I reflect on the kinds of tasks I have been asked to do in the past, and I think about the skills that were needed for those tasks that I wished I had more expertise in. If a past organization needed those skills, that demonstrates to me that the skills are in demand and that learning them could give me a competitive edge in the future with similar organizations. I also think about the strengths and weaknesses of the organizations I’ve worked with and try to learn from each organization’s strengths as well as seek future positions that can supplement my knowledge in areas where my organization is weaker. I can use these reflections to guide me in what I dedicate myself to learning next. I also try to keep this in mind when I go to informational interviews because even though I’m not going to learn hard skills over coffee, I can definitely learn certain strategies that I can take back with me to my organization.

Overall, by interning in D.C., I’ve learned that organizations and individuals, even at competing organizations, are usually happy to sit down with you and talk to you about their work and provide advice and guidance. While they aren’t going to share their organization’s deepest secrets or competitive strategies, you can pick up a lot from them, and this is one of the unique advantages of being an intern as opposed to a full-time employee.

Panel on Afro-Descendants in Latin AmericaSarah Coker
Foreign Policy

March 13th, 2019 | This past week, as a part of my Global Politics seminar, I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time. I found myself in awe of its content and design, especially the way it centers and gives agency to the Afro-descendant community in the U.S. in a way that so few U.S. museums and history books do. In particular, I was excited to see a “Young Lords” pin displayed in one of the exhibits on how “the struggles for civil rights and black power inspired other groups to organize for change.” I first learned about the Young Lords in a Latin American Studies history course.

The Young Lords was a street gang turned revolutionary group inspired by the Black Panthers that was formed primarily by second-generation Puerto Rican migrants in Chicago, Illinois. It was active in the 1960s and 70s and had chapters across the country, its New York one being particularly notable. The group fought for Puerto Rican self-determination and for social change and justice within their communities and for all third world or colonized people. Some of their community initiatives, always free of charge, included cleaning the streets, providing student breakfasts, and tuberculosis testing.

Young Lords Party pinAt the time, my classmates and I were shocked that we had never heard of the Young Lords before, and I remember some of the Latinx students in the class commenting that this was their first time learning about these powerful movements within their own communities, which really struck me. The erasure and omission of the history, even the existence, of these groups from the national narrative robs the current generations of the powerful legacy of their predecessors. Although I still believe that we as a country have a long way to go, to see these groups and movements represented in a national museum speaks volumes.

Last week I also had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on Afro-Descendants in Latin America hosted by Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) that focused on the International Decade for People of African Descent. Crystal Yuille, internship coordinator at the Washington Office on Latin America where I’m interning this semester, was one of the panelists. It was important to me to attend because Afro-descendent populations in Latin America, along with indigenous populations, are some of the most effected by political, economic, social, and other crises in the region and yet I find their very existence is often overlooked in the U.S., which tends to weaken non-profit work and U.S. foreign policy alike. I am experiencing this at my internship this semester and contemplating it in light of my Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy seminar as well. As one of the panelists shared, many people he has come into contact with in the U.S. have a hard time conceptualizing that he could be Colombian and also black.

The Movement Inspires Others museum displayThe panelists acknowledged that Afro-descendent peoples in Latin America and the U.S. all have different experiences and backgrounds that are far from homogenous and that Afro-descendants in the U.S. often fail to recognize Afro-Latinx people or other Afro-descendent groups in the Americas. They explained that despite this, all Afro-descendant peoples ultimately have similar roots in that many of their ancestors bore the weight slavery and/or colonialism, and they continue to bear its legacy today. The panelists spoke of the need for increased unity among Afro-descendent peoples throughout the Americas and the imperative of a continued awareness and expression of their cultures.

After the museum visit and panel discussion this week, I found myself reflecting on my experiences learning about race in Cuba. I have found that Afro-descendent and black Cuban identity and history is not usually studied or spoken about in the U.S. other than to acknowledge that the Revolution aimed to eliminate racism and racial disparities and was in some ways successful. That being said, for a variety of reasons, racism and racial disparities still exist on the island. However, groups and individuals in Cuba, working on their own and with government institutions, have aimed to combat this in a variety of ways. This fall while in Cuba, I met Magia Lopez Cabrera and Alexey Rodríguez Mola, who are members of the Cuban rap duo Obsesión and are both powerful voices within the Afro-Cuban community. They are a part of a vibrant network of Afro-Cuban activists who work to educate themselves and others through art, education, and community work. Their work is the kind of work that I believe the panelists at Hank Johnson’s roundtable event were stressing was and is so important: Afro-descendant Latinx activists leading the way, teaching their history to the younger generations, while building off of this history and moving forward in the fight for justice.

Next month, Ms. Lopez Cabrera will come to D.C. for a series of short film screenings (https://www.facebook.com/events/609362772824072/) hosted by the Platform for Innovation and Dialogue with Cuba, and I am thrilled that our paths will cross again. D.C. has not only given me the opportunity to pursue my passion for Cuba, but has also pushed me to branch out and explore other topics and issues as well, as I have these past few weeks exploring black and Afro-descendant history and current issues in the U.S. and Latin America. No matter what one is interested in, you can bet D.C. has at least one organization, think tank, or government committee probing the issue and crafting innovative approaches and solutions. Plenty of organizations and universities (including AU) offer free panel discussions, and bookstores like Politics and Prose and Kramer Books and Afterwards also host speakers frequently. The amount of free events in D.C. is really incredible, and I would encourage everyone in the WSP program to take full advantage of these (especially while you have an AU UPass).

Washington Semester site visit to Center for Latin American StudiesSarah Coker
Foreign Policy

February 25, 2019 | Even though I’ve only been in D.C. for about a month, I’ve already been able to take advantage of so many great opportunities! I recently attended an event at Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies entitled “Realities and Challenges of U.S.-Cuban Relations,” where Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, and the former U.S. chargé d’affaires (deputy chief of mission) at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, spoke about normalizing relations between the countries under the Obama Administration. I also attended a roundtable that was a satellite panel to the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference entitled “Sonic Attacks in Havana: Review of Science and Media Coverage: Parsing Facts” at the Cuban Embassy.

The panelists at the roundtable talked about what the scientific evidence (or lack thereof) tells us about the incidents and discussed the article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, steps that may help us understand the cause(s) of the symptoms of those affected, media coverage of the incidents, the need for transparency, and Cuba’s willingness to collaborate with the U.S. and others during the process of investigating the symptoms. One point that I found particularly salient was made by Professor Janina R. Galler. Galler shared that she feels that science has played a great role in brokering the political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and that the sensationalism of these incidents has had a negative impact on neuroscience collaboration. This includes hampering the progress of a 50-year longitudinal study on brain abnormalities in the developing world, which is being carried out by the U.S. and Cuba in Barbados. There are not many studies of this kind; consequently, the increasingly complicated political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba poses challenges to the study that may lead to delays in the process of neuroscience research globally.

At the end of the roundtable, a renowned Cuba expert I’d met earlier this semester kindly introduced me to Ambassador Cabañas! After mingling with some other colleagues and scholars, Carlos Gutierrez, who was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under the Bush Administration, came up and introduced himself to me. We follow each other on Twitter, which is where he recognized me from. Born in Havana, Gutierrez’s family migrated to the U.S. in 1960 when Castro nationalized his father’s pineapple plantation. A former hardliner on Cuba, he now supports business engagement with the island and chairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Cuba Business Council. I sent him a follow-up message on Twitter, and he replied the next day, saying, among other things, that he thinks about Cuba every day. It was touching to hear his love for his country and inspiring to think that he could have such a change of heart.

At both of these events, as I sat in the room with some of the most powerful and influential people in U.S.-Cuba relations past and present, I couldn’t help but think back to being in Havana just a few months ago. It is extremely difficult to reconcile the U.S.’s policies towards Cuba with the reality of the country that I’ve come to know from spending time there.

The theme of engaging with other countries has been at the forefront of my mind these past weeks in other ways as well. In my Global Politics class, we covered WWI and WWII and heard from Dr. Leroy Miller about the need to resist isolationist and protectionist policies and instead engage with other countries in order to future conflicts. This, he argued, was why the United Nations and a plethora of other international organizations were formed after WWII: in order to provide a forum for resolving conflicts peacefully.

My internship is yet another place where I’m able to witness countries engaging with each other, albeit in a slightly different way. I’ve found that one of the things I enjoy about tracking press hits for the communications team is that I get to see how far our organization’s influence extends and how many different countries we’re reaching. When the Venezuela crisis was just breaking, we had articles in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Romanian, Chinese, and German. Outside of the Americas, countries we reached included South Africa, Romania, India, Australia, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Hungary, and China. It’s also exciting to see WOLA experts quoted by large outlets such as The New York Times or NPR.

Washington Semester student Sarah Coker at the Italian Embassy's Valentine's Day Ball One thing that I’ve really enjoyed about the WSP program overall so far has been the variety of experiences I’ve been able to have all within the same week. Instead of just going to classes or just working at an internship every day from 9-5, I wake up some days and go to a lecture by my professor, while other days I travel downtown to hear a guest speaker or expert, and still other days I work 8 hours at WOLA. I’ve found that having a schedule that varies helps keep me interested and excited and has prevented me from feeling burnt out. On the other hand, I won’t say that juggling classes and an internship simultaneously is easy. I know that with a 9-5 job my work ends when I leave the office, but with my classes, there is no set time to be working or not working outside of class sessions. I’ve learned that I need to consciously make sure that I’m setting aside time to do other fun things, like attending the Valentine’s Day Ball at the Italian Embassy this past weekend!

Sarah's notes and a pen with Washington Semester Program written across itSarah Coker
Foreign Policy

February 13, 2019 | Hello! I'm Sarah, and I'm a senior majoring in Spanish and minoring in Latin American & Latinx Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. I applied for the Washington Semester Program (WSP) after interning with the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) this summer, where I helped promote U.S.-Cuba engagement. I loved the fast-paced environment of D.C., and feeling like I and those around me were contributing to causes of international importance each day as we went to work in the nation’s capital.

After returning to the U.S. from a semester abroad in Havana, Cuba, this fall, I am more motivated than ever to work towards better relations and increased collaboration and engagement between the U.S. and Cuba, particularly through non-profit organizations. This semester, I've chosen courses that focus on foreign policy so that I can learn how decisions are made in order to develop more effective lobbying strategies for non-profit organizations I may work for in the future. I'm also interning at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), where I work mainly in communications, tracking press hits and social media engagement, though my job will expand to include other responsibilities in the coming weeks and months.

Being back in D.C. (this time in the winter!) has been an adjustment. Having grown up in Vermont, I'm not used to classes and work being cancelled or delayed for a few feet of snow - but here it's already happened twice! Luckily I’ve still been able to check out some new places in the city, including the zoo, where I met a 71-year-old Asian elephant. Her breed, in captivity, usually only lives to 48-50 years old!

Women's March in Washington, DCI also felt lucky to participate in the 3rd Annual Women's March on Washington, which I attended with my roommate. I love the solidarity that is so easily felt as one takes the metro to a march, rally, or protest in D.C. and sees others all around them carrying signs and wearing clothing that makes it apparent they're headed to the same place. One of my favorite signs that I saw that day said "White people: What will we do to change our legacy of violence?" It was a powerful reminder to me to actively work to dismantle institutions and systems of oppression and to work in solidarity with and towards justice for people of color, which has been on my mind a lot lately as I work on Cuba-related issues. Even though I've only been back in D.C. for a few weeks, I've managed to connect with several Cuba scholars whom I’ve grown to admire. Although I’m honored to connect with them, I’ve realized that these scholars form a homogenous group of older white men. There are, of course, Cubans, people of color, and women scholars who work on Cuba whom I admire and have connected with as well, but it still made me stop and think about the diversity in the Cuba scholars I look up to. I believe this kind of reflection is constructive, and I would like to continue to be cognizant of the diversity of those whose thoughts, opinions, and ideas I surround myself with.

My classes here in the Washington Semester Program have also been challenging me to think critically. The other day in my U.S. Foreign Policy class, we participated in an activity where we debated which branch of government, legislative, executive, or judicial, has the most power to conduct foreign policy according to the Constitution. Our professor had us "blindly" write and justify our answer, and then we broke off into two groups (executive and legislative) based on our responses. The judicial branch, given that it serves more to interpret law and handle disputes, was not chosen by anyone. Our professor then gave us a copy of the Constitution to read, and we continued to develop our arguments and then debated with each other. Although I was definitely of the persuasion that, constitutionally, the legislative branch has a bit more power than the executive, as we laid out the powers that the two branches have at the end of class, I came to see that it really is more balanced than I originally thought. As a continuation of this exploration, during our next class we spoke with Andrew Taylor, Chief Economic Advisor of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Republican staff). He is an alumnus of the Washington Semester Program and took classes with our professor. It was inspiring to see how an alum of the program built off of his WSP experiences and connections. During the talk, Taylor shared his perspective on the balance of foreign policy power between the legislative and executive branches based on bills he had personally seen passed during his time on the committee.

One of the projects I'm most excited about at the moment is a paper that I'm collaborating on with a former colleague, a current fellow at CDA where I interned over the summer, on how non-traditional channels for mobilization have impacted Cuban society in relation to Cuba's draft constitution. Our abstract was just accepted to the 23rd Latin American Social and Public Policy Conference (LASPP) at the University of Pittsburgh in March! I’m excited to have reconnected with those I got to know last summer and to build new personal and professional connections throughout D.C. this spring!