Thinking about a Semester in D.C.? Here’s What to Keep in Mind

Carolyn Fenerty ‘20

Staff Writer

Spending a semester in Washington, D.C., is an entirely different ballgame than study abroad. You start your day on the Metro, the city’s underground train network, which you learn to navigate quickly even if it’s a bit overwhelming at first. There are a few simple rules, informal but ironclad, to keep in mind: Don’t block people walking up the escalator. Be assertive, not aggressive. During rush hour, even the most crowded train car has room if you’re willing to squeeze.

You spend your day – four days a week for most people, although I did five – at an internship, which you’re responsible for finding on your own. I spent my three months in the Bureau of International Organizational Affairs in the State Department, in their public affairs office. My job entailed plenty of opportunities to do much more interesting things than any job I’d had before. I helped develop social media strategies, attended Congressional briefings, designed a bulletin board despite my complete lack of graphic design, helped deal with questions from members of the press, wrote and compiled analytic reports, and got to pick the brains of career foreign service officers about working overseas and in government.

I tried to soak up as much life and career advice as I could – one of the major benefits of being thrust into an internship surrounded by people who’ve worked in the career field you want for years.

Depending on your internship, you’ll have downtime at work. Try to use this to work on your thesis: a 40-50 page research paper, taking an in-depth look at the topic of your choice, and written with guidance from an advisor and a second reader. Make sure you pick a good advisor willing to be involved and give substantive feedback. This will save your life as the end of November approaches and you’re expected to have something worth reading to hand in. Forty pages sounds like a long paper, but you’ll find yourself struggling to stay within the 50 page limit (especially if you’re as wordy as I am). Make sure to pick a topic you’re passionate about, because you’re going to be reading dozens of books, articles, and primary sources over three months; but also use your free time to talk to the people at your internship, and anyone else you can network with. Meet people doing the job you want and people in fields you’ve never considered. Listen to their stories and experiences, all the little anecdotes they’ve built up over years in government work, non-profits, law, and anything you find remotely interesting. D.C. is a nexus of expertise, of ambition and altruism and hope and cynicism all in one city; try to learn as much as you can about as much as you can from everyone you convince to share even a little wisdom with you. Schedule coffees. Network. Take advantage of the city but even more so the people in it.

When you’re working a 9-5 job five days a week, it’s hard to make free time, but take any opportunity you can to see the city. Being in the heart of national politics, and the daily buzz of D.C., is an invigorating experience. See the monuments, especially at night. Visit the museums; most of them are free, which your ever-tightening wallet will appreciate. There are dozens to choose from: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the American History Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden are some personal recommendations. But there’s plenty more to see as well: the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building, Eastern Market and Union Market, and Alexandria if you find yourself missing the suburbs.

Spend some time in Georgetown for more than just the library access. It’s hard to get to, but the campus is beautiful. The first time our group went to pick up our library cards, we stumbled upon move-in day, and got to reminisce about first arriving at Holy Cross more than two years ago. See the city, and visit as many restaurants as you can. Georgetown Cupcakes is more famous, but Baked and Wired is better; keep that in mind.

You’ll get to know your group well. There will be 16 of you, at most; spread out throughout your building so you don’t turn the apartment complex into a dorm. Getting a noise complaint on a Saturday night because you woke up someone’s baby will take a little getting used to. Having your little group from Holy Cross makes being thrown into a new city and a new job, without the familiar comforts of a campus or a class structure, at least a little easier. And everyone is perfectly willing to commiserate about the thesis, unless they’re telling you to stop talking about it because they haven’t started yet.By junior year, you’ll be pretty attached to your core friend group at school, but take advantage of getting to make friends with an entire group of new people who you might never have even met, let alone become friends with, if you had decided to stay on campus.

Think of the Washington semester as a test run for what might be your future career. Do you want to work in government, or is the private sector more for you? Should you run for elected office, or are you better suited to research, or communications, or advocacy? Like college, spending a semester in D.C. is about discovering what you’re passionate about, and can imagine yourself doing for the rest of your life, but actually getting to do a trial run for three months. You go to work and come home in the morning with all the other commuters, spend the entire day in the office, and learn and see as much as you can.

Like study abroad, D.C. is about experiencing a little more of the world and seeking out new advantages to grow. So take advantage. Be proactive. Be ambitious. And think, if you’re worried about missing campus and your friends, about how much stronger, more experienced, and more confident you’ll have the chance to become for doing it.

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

Categories: features

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