From Passive Berkeley to Dynamic DC - My First Days in Washington

January 15, 2015

A Berkeley professor once shared with me her impression about D.C. She was invited over to the capital as an Asia expert, where she and professors from other universities were given a tour of the State Department, where they met with some government officials responsible for drafting international policies. At the end of the tour, the officials asked the professors if they had any questions about D.C. “The only question I had in mind,” my professor said to me, “’was are things here more like what we see in The West Wings or House of Cards?’” She did not say that out loud, of course.

I used to share this cynicism towards bureaucracy as well, and so did many of my friends at Berkeley. When I told them I was going to D.C. for a semester, they joked: “Oh, you’d better get some nice pant suits before you leave. Sweatpants and hoodies just won’t work there.” They are probably right. Berkeley (and to some extent, the entire San Francisco Bay Area) is its own universe. Although technology and entrepreneurship have become more and more dominant on the Berkeley campus, many of us still managed to remain unaffected. My academic footprint at Berkeley, for example, is pretty much confined to Dwinelle Hall and Barrows Hall, where the History and Political Science faculty give instructions and hold office hours. I do admire the professors and my fellow classmates of humanity and social sciences, who lead a very simple life and seem very into it. They do not seem to care much about politics. They do research because they love the topic itself. And many of them do not seem to care whether their research can make an impact on the real world or not. At least in History and Political Science departments, I saw minimal linkage between academia, industry and government.

Well, D.C. is way different. On the TV in the lobby of the UCDC center, CNN is on 24/7. Yesterday I was meeting with a friend at a café near Georgetown University, the radio in that café was set to NPR. People here seem way more nationalistic than the people I met in Berkeley: I saw at least seven national flags flying in Georgetown and its neighboring communities. The city --- at least, the northwestern half of the city where the state departments, lobby firms and think tanks are located --- is defined by politics. To some extent, DC reminds me of my hometown Beijing where the cab drivers can update you with the newest personnel changes within the top leadership of China as well as the details of the APEC Conference.

As I am only in my second week at the DC program, I reserve further judgments I have for the city. Soon I will start my internship at the Wilson Center. I am quite curious to see the differences and similarities of doing research in a think tank versus that in an “ivory tower”. Hopefully, by the time I leave Washington in April, I will have a lot more to say about this legendary city.

Here it begins.

headshot of Mengyu Dong

Mengyu Dong is a 4th-year Cal student double majoring in Political Science and History. She is excited at the opportunity to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., and hopes to open her mind to different views on topics that she has already learned about through books and professors at Cal. She is most looking forward to utilizing the knowledge and skills she has gained at Cal to make contributions to the real world. "Thank you to the Matsui Center for this incredible opportunity!"