Lessons Learned in the Capital

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Photos: Allie DeJongh

Living in the nation’s capital for a semester, while shrinking my bank account, has given me a range of new opportunities and experiences. From going to an event at the French ambassador’s residence to seeing Sean Spicer in the grocery store, I have made many memories during my time in Washington, D.C. Along with these experiences, this semester has taught me several valuable lessons that will continue to shape me in the years to come.

At a networking event for professionals in international affairs, I learned an important lesson about introductions and first impressions. Knowing that I was most certainly not a professional in international affairs, I introduced myself to people at the event by shaking their hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Allie and I am just an intern right now at USAID, but I thought it would be great to talk with different people around DC who are working in international affairs. What do you do?” I did not think much about my choice of wording until I was leaving the event and a woman I had met pulled me aside and said, “Don’t tell people you are ‘just an intern.’ Be confident and bold! That’s how you will go far in this city.” I took her word for it.

Getting coffee with someone else I had met at a networking event, I asked how often she was able to visit her family. She responded, “I see my family once every year or two. Living abroad has made it difficult to visit them very often.” I looked at her a bit wide-eyed, unsure of what to say. She was a graduate student in international affairs and was from the Midwest just like me, and yet she hardly ever saw her family. Granted that my family will do whatever it takes to see me more often than that, choosing to follow a career in international affairs will mean making sacrifices in areas of my life that are important to me, such as spending time with loved ones.

Along with being confident and making sacrifices, as a student majoring in International Studies, it is important to have an open mind about different cultures and ways of life. And yet, I struggle each day with ethnocentrism and making assumptions about people with backgrounds different from my own. I invited a Jordanian coworker and an Afghani coworker who were living in DC for two months to a concert and dinner one Friday night, wanting to show them around the district. While having dinner, we discussed our cultures and religions, finding multiple similarities between Christianity and Islam. We talked about the terrible acts of violence committed by ISIS, as well as the prejudice they both had experienced upon arriving in the US. Sitting with my coworkers, I came to the realization that I have lived most of my life surrounded by people very similar to me. Of all of the lessons I have learned during my time in the capital, this one was the most valuable. In order to build diverse and understanding communities, people of all different backgrounds must be intentional about coming together and listening to one another.

Although studying abroad or away for a semester can oftentimes be a break from rigorous classes and the stress of life on-campus, I have found from my time studying in Luxembourg and in DC that these semesters are the ones where I have learned the most about my career interests and what steps I need to take to make a way for myself in the “real world.”

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