Sometimes I don’t really believe I’m here in DC because I am supposed to be in school, or at least traditionally that’s what college students are supposed to do, right? Well, I decided a couple months ago that I had studied enough (for the time being, at least!) and that what I really wanted to do was get some work experience, explore the “real world” outside of my small liberal arts college and gain some perspective on life. Let me just tell you, for someone who really likes school, debating ideas in seminars, reading books, and writing papers, not being in school is a tad bit scary. It means that I can’t work at my own pace and leisure, I can’t really “choose” what I’m doing, and most importantly, I can’t just do what I am familiar with doing for the past 15 years of my life (i.e. surviving at school). As much as I liked being at school, I have always thought that there is a strange divide between what I learned in the classroom, all those lofty theories and case studies, and what actually happened in practice. When I’m writing my papers, I’m really not accountable to anyone but myself, my class, and my professor. There are other implications I suppose but I would say that those concerns are not as significant as an undergrad. In the work world, however, there is no such thing as a bad paper without consequences but there is screwing up on a memo which will actually affect people’s lives. And since I’m studying political science in college, I wanted to learn more about how political science is put into practice. Reading about the merits of a representative democracy is different from actually working in the offices of people who pedal the wheels of our government.
Although I am only two weeks into this program, I have learned so much not only from my internship and seminars but also from the women I am living with. I am lucky to be living in a house with the six other women in my program in addition to three other women. At first, I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about living with so many other women since I had never done that before! For the past two years, I have been living with my college roommate (in coed dorms) who knew me inside out and could tolerate my morning grumpiness and other strange habits. However, after about two days of living in a full house, I think this is one of the best parts about this semester. We all come from different areas of the country and have various perspectives that we are willing to share with each other. For a California girl like me, I love hearing about places ranging from the coast of Mississippi to my current roommate’s home in Maine. Those are places that I have always dreamed about visiting but haven’t gotten around to in my 20 years of living. It’s more than just sitting around the kitchen table sharing stories about what happened back home or at college; it also includes the little things such as seeing when we wake up, what we eat…It all sounds quite boring but it’s like watching the lives of nine other people on a reality show except I’m actually living in the reality show.
I also knew that one of the things I would love about moving out here for a semester was living in the city. I spent a part of last summer living in DC, and I had a fabulous time walking, biking, and riding the Metro everywhere. I popped my head into museums and stores whenever I wandered around, took bike rides to the edge of the Potomac just to see the sun set behind the towering buildings in Virginia, and really did all the “touristy” things. And this semester, my roommates and I have been again taking advantage of all D.C. has to offer by going to festivals, like the National Book Festival, receptions, and just enjoying ourselves. I don’t feel the need to see everything in a week but I know that if I walked out my door, I am a jump, hop, and skip away from the Capitol, the White House, and many other neat places in D.C.
Something different that I am getting this semester is my immersion in politics. I have become a bit obsessed with reading all of the D.C./Hill newspapers such as Roll Call, The Hill, CQ, etc. When something happens in Congress, I’m three times more interested because the events are happening literally less than a mile away from me. I hear people talking about legislation all around me, and I actually see those Congresswomen and men who are the movers and shakers walking down the halls of the Capitol. For someone who lives to engage in debates about politics, I tell you that there is no better place than D.C.
I guess a part of me still really misses being in a library poring over articles and books but I’ve realized this is just a different type of learning, and one challenge for me is to see how what I’ve learned from my classes relates to what I’m learning from my internship and seminars. One of the advantages of the seminars is that we are talking to people who are actual professionals in the field. For example, one of our assignments for this fellowship is to interview the Member of Congress we’re interning with, and we had people who are reporters come in and give us some great tips about interviews. My first assumption was that interviews are all about asking questions but I never considered the art behind conducting an interview. Who knew that transitions between questions were so important? Or that an interview should be more of a conversation than simply having the interviewer asking the interviewee long lists of questions?
In today’s seminar, we talked to a professor from AU who wrote a book about women breaking the political glass ceiling. It was fascinating to learn that there are certain districts where women have a higher chance of winning Congressional elections than others. I bet if we talked to anyone on the street, most would not admit that they take gender into account when voting. Most would say that they would look at both candidates equally and vote for one according to their demonstrated skill and accomplishments without regard to gender. Of course today was not the first day I discovered that people and the media judge women and men differently in politics, but it was strange to see that political scientists have actually succeeded in finding patterns in districts where women are more likely to win Congressional races. It was discouraging to see that one could predict the chances a woman would win based on the district where she ran. I would like to believe that a qualified woman running in any race should have a fair shot at winning, but sadly statistics tell otherwise.
It’s still too early to tell what I’m going to gain from this whole experience, but I already have many burning questions in my mind. How can we as women really break through barriers and avoid being tokenized for the sake of appearance? How can we set up a system of mentorship and support between older women and younger women? How can we change the way women are covered in the media so that the media will look at a woman’s accomplishments and not how she is dressed? How do the movements of encouraging more minorities to run for political office relate to our push for more women to run? Although we have made much progress in the women’s movement, how do we keep pushing for equal rights even when others have already deemed that women and men are now “equal”? For someone who would like to run for office someday, this is not just a learning experience but a personal journey because I am a woman. These questions are not just important to other women and my future but my life too because I am living through these experiences everyday. All of these issues do and will affect me regardless of what I decide to do in the future because they have implications on other issues in society, such as society’s standard of how women should balance family and work, etc. Can I cry in public because I get so emotionally invested in this healthcare debate? Can I stand by my convictions against another person and not be judged as being “too manly” or “too strong”? All those concerns and questions I have about the current political situation are intimidating but if I look at this with some perspective, there have been challenges for women since the beginning of time. I am still optimistic that women can break the glass ceiling but I would like to leave this fellowship with even more ideas of how all women can further empower each other to succeed in the political realm in addition to everyday life.
In my two weeks of being here, surrounded by so many amazing Running Start mentors and fellows, I have never been prouder of being a woman.
-Katherine L., Star Fellow Fall 2009