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!