DC Recap: What I've Learned From a Semester in Washington

overview of washington dc streets

Trinh Nguyen Matsui Washington Fellows

December 16, 2013

I still need to pack. The UCDC building kicks us out tomorrow, and that move-out date totally snuck up on me. These past weeks have been spent going to goodbye dinners for all the quarter students leaving, finishing up projects at my internship, going to professional-social holiday parties (they’re kind of weird), and writing finals and research papers. I’m going to reiterate the same advice I’ve gotten numerous times from professors and UCDC advisers—FINISH YOUR RESEARCH PAPER EARLY. I know a handful of people that finished it weeks in advance, and they spent their last weeks travelling and exploring, stress-free. I, on the other hand, slept an average of 4 hours a night, and crashed on the weekends. (Hopefully this college lifestyle does not follow me into adulthood.)

I’m graduating next week, and am planning on staying in D.C. indefinitely. I spent the majority of the semester considering and reconsidering the move. The Bay is my home, and I want to move back. There were a lot of things that annoyed me about D.C., but I grew to like its idiosyncrasies. And I’m signing a lease today, so hopefully I don’t change my mind after the holidays.

I want to take you all through three things that I found peculiar of D.C. when I first moved out. Over time, I grew to understand them a bit better and it helped my transition into becoming a Washingtonian (haha, I kid myself). So if you’re thinking of doing UCDC (do it!) or making a move out here (that’s up to you), here’s some advice:

01. You don’t have to be a tourist.

The last time I was in Washington, D.C., I was no doubt a tourist. On an eighth grade field trip, my classmates and I experienced D.C. in a tour bus, only hitting the monuments and a handful of museums. I came away with too many postcards and $6 replicas of the Declaration of Independence. When my parents asked me what I learned from the trip, I said that the White House was smaller than I thought.

This time in D.C., I haven't bought any souvenirs. I don't feel like a tourist, even though I do many touristy things. My friends and I even rented out bikes to see the monuments at night. (Piece of advice: Do it in the summer. I don't think my hands ever fully thawed.)

A few UCDC students and I were chatting a while back about the differences between the West and East Coasts. We were in our home country, yet felt like outsiders. As young adults tend to do, we were trying to label ourselves. We were in a weird limbo. Nobody automatically assumed we were interns, because we were not a part of the summer intern frenzy. Random people on the street would ask us for directions, and didn't know that we constantly walked with our Google Maps app on. (Let me tell you about the time, after spending three months in D.C., when I stepped off the metro on the other side of the road, and took ten extra minutes to get home because I was so confused.)

The most salient aspect was just how the East Coast portrayed its American-ness. It sounds kind of ridiculous, because of course the U.S. isn’t all the same. I could tell you a thousand cultural differences between California and Oregon, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Berkeley’s north- and southsides, or Barrows and Soda Hall.

However, it’s obvious that East Coasters see their geographic-specific history as American history.

My public school Californian history studies began with the Russian and Spanish colonization, touched upon the Gold Rush, and focused on the Californian missions. Would anyone who grew up in New York, Maine, or Idaho or Arkansas, know any of that?

But all students have had units on Pennsylvania’s first governor, agricultural practices in Massachusetts, and the development of D.C.

In addition, East Coast history is so ingrained and obvious in everyday life. Aside from a few special places in California, history is kind of obscured. For example, where I grew up there are buildings and schools named after Maria Carrillo, Jack London, and Luther Burbank. Their historical contributions and narratives are recognized, but the majority of people in my hometown would not know who they were. What’s more, they would not define their hometown as “where Maria Carrillo lived.”

When I visited Gettysburg, I saw stores and restaurants called Battlefield Fries, Union Drummer Boy, and General Pickett’s Buffet.

I went to Boston and am sure the city was built as a memorial to Paul Revere. I was only in Philadelphia for five hours, and can probably name at least 100 places with “liberty” or “Franklin” in their names.

It’s cool to walk by random buildings and see plaques denoting America’s first dentist or first public school. It’s not that California doesn’t have historical figures and events that deserve recognition, but Californians seem to care less about defining their environment and cities around them.

Of course, a country began 250 years ago in these Atlantic states, and federal power is still concentrated over there. East Coasters’ pride over their history is understandable.

At the same time, these monuments and memorials can be kind of jarring. The Capitol houses multiple statues (many picked by states), including figures who were pro-slavery, anti-women’s rights, and/or pro-imperialism. Also, the UCDC Center faces Scott Circle, where a statue is dedicated to General Winifred Scott, who historians dub the most accomplished general since George Washington. He helped Andrew Jackson execute the Trail of Tears.

02. Understand that your supervisors know nearly everything.

If you are interested in federal policy, you need to realize that D.C. is the best possible place to work with people who truly understand the arena, and who can answer all of your questions.

It seems that people in D.C. rarely change career tracks. They change jobs frequently, but stay in the same industry. I intern for a bipartisan education lobbying/consulting firm where nearly everyone worked together at one point or another on the Hill. They've battled across the aisle, compromised on bills, and wrote legislation together. Right now, my supervisors are advising their clients on potential bill reauthorizations that they originally wrote a decade ago.

If I ever have a question on an education (or labor, healthcare, appropriations, etc.) law, I can talk to the person that helped conceive it, the person who worked to move it through Congress, the person who assisted the federal government in implementing it, and the person who evaluated it later on ... all in the same office suite.

I am job searching, and every time I mention an organization (regardless of whether or not it’s education-related), I immediately learn that this or that person worked with someone in the firm.

There are two things to point out from this. First, the people working in education (or healthcare, economic policy, environmental economics, etc.) ten or fifteen years ago are the same people working there now. If you come to D.C. now, you will be able to poke at the minds of very experienced, knowledgeable people. I had a weird “celebrity”-shock moment when I realized that the principals of the firm I intern for wrote education policies that affected me back when I was in elementary and middle school.

Second, since these professionals have been around for so long, many are choosing to leave D.C. to raise families or to retire. That makes D.C. prime for young professionals to enter in the field, now more than ever. Of course the job market is competitive, but I’ve realized that D.C. has a soft spot for big public universities, especially for Berkeley.

03. You gotta network, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve been to a fair amount of networking events, including happy hours and holiday parties that blend social and professional. It’s awkward. I’m horrible at it. I don’t like the power divide. I am a lowly intern wanting someone more accomplished to lend me a hand. If I haven’t worked for that person, or they haven’t learned of my skills “organically,” it’s difficult to sell myself because I feel like I’m selling myself.

There are constant complaints in the UCDC building about the D.C. networking culture. That it’s not authentic or genuine. That it’s preventing them from forming “real” relationships. That it’s just plain exhausting.

We also hear lots of “success stories.” One of my friends ended up receiving a job offer from striking up a conversation with a stranger. Another found a vital connection to a fellowship she wanted at a happy hour. When I ask people how they got their first jobs, about three out of four say they just met the right person at the right time.

Regardless, I am still uncomfortable with networking for the sake of networking. But at the same time, I wonder where the disdain comes from.

What is so wrong with wanting a better job? A job that probably not only has more benefits, but one that also can tap into your skills and effectively applies them toward accomplishing your goals.

One of my friends who recently moved to D.C. graduated Berkeley with an impressive resume in international development and finance. Not only does she have the knowledge, she has the dedication to work tirelessly toward international social equity. She’s currently working at a job that doesn’t utilize her knowledge of economics or international trade, but only cares if she can collate papers or not. Why shouldn’t she tap into every resource available, including that of strangers, in order to make sure her talents can be better applied toward improving the world?

Networking with strangers may still be uncomfortable for many people, but networking within your organization or with your coworkers shouldn't be.

D.C. professionals are generally very supportive of young people's career development. They understand where you’re coming from, and genuinely want to help you. For example, I am currently looking for a full-time job, and the firm I intern for has extended my internship until I find one so that there's no gap in my resume. Many of my supervisors constantly keep an ear out for job opportunities.

The point is, when you work, intern, or volunteer for an organization, you become a part of the team. Your supervisors and coworkers all want you to succeed, and will not think twice about helping you do so. On a more practical note, their organization will always be on your resume, so they of course want it associated with other great companies.

So go get some business cards and head on out! (Just to emphasize: don’t go to D.C. without business cards.)

I’m going to be in D.C. for at least the next few years, although I’m thankfully spending the winter back in California, where there is always fresh fruit and a lack of fusion food. (As much as I loved Chinese-style duck tacos, I miss just regular food.)

I have been apprehensive about the move to D.C. (and still am). Professionally, I know it’s the right decision. I want to work in federal policy, and there’s really no where else to do it. Personally, it’s a city that attracts idealists and hard workers, and it’s fun being around them. It’s also cool to see another side of the U.S. (I’ve actually developed an affinity toward the northern Midwestern states from meeting people from that area.)

It doesn’t hurt to do at least a summer in D.C. I’ve heard that a summer is a lot more fun for students and young professionals than it is in the fall and spring. But it’s also good to get out of California, and get another perspective on how government, policy, and people function.

headshot of Trinh Nguyen

"I am very excited to intern for Penn Hill Group this fall semester. The bipartisan government relations firm specializes in education policy and youth issues. Among their many services is strategic consulting on policy and legislative goals. As an intern, I will be able to assist on projects and research. From this experience, I will study bipartisan advocacy in the legislative process and apply that knowledge toward a future career in public policy. I am also looking forward to working in a small office environment which is located in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown area, home to food festivals and art galleries. The office is only a 10 minute walk from the National Mall! I can't wait!"