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Students experience D.C.

Megan Doyle | Monday, January 21, 2013

WASHINGTON – Junior Mia Counts got a new ID card this semester – not from Card Services on campus, but for the Pentagon Building in Washington D.C.

Courts is one of 10 Notre Dame students participating in the Washington Program, a semester-long experience working, studying and living in Washington D.C. The alternative study abroad program is designed for student with specific interest in politics or journalism, and it plunges them into the heart of current affairs in the capital.

“[The Washington Program] definitely thrusts you right into the middle of everything,” Counts said. “We’re not in the ‘Notre Dame bubble,’ and you can really tell because everything is in the city. It’s a good experience.”

Each student in the program splits his or her time between an internship and coursework. Counts works more than 25 hours each week in the Pentagon with the AFPAK Hands program, a counter insurgency initiative run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that works to build diplomatic relationships in the Middle East.

“I’m definitely getting a different perspective on what the media tells you on what is going on over there,” she said.

On Sunday night, Counts sat in one of the apartments that house Notre Dame students near Woodley Park with some of the other students in the program. They cooked dinner, watched football and talked about the presidential inauguration to happen the next day outside the U.S. Capitol Building just a few Metro stops from their home.

“[The inauguration] is something that only happens every four years. … I just think it’s an incredible opportunity when you’re studying this. It’s history in the making,” Counts said.

Sophomore Matt Mleczko will be among the crowd on the National Mall today.

“It’ll be really neat because I remember where I was four years ago, the last inauguration,” he said. “The 2008 campaign was when I started getting into politics and to think how far I’ve come in four years – I was in algebra II class the last inauguration, and now I’m here.”

Mleczko said he hopes to see President Barack Obama deliver an inaugural address that acknowledges the need to overcome bipartisanship.

“Political speeches like this [are] breeding grounds for overly idealistic language, and we all celebrate speeches like that, and the next day we go back to bashing each other in Congress … I hope we can go forward after this and start seeing some action and start seeing some change after this,” he said.

Despite the political divide that characterizes Washington D.C., Mleczko said Inauguration Day is a chance to set those differences aside.

“People are really frustrated and are tired of what’s going on in politics, but it’s neat that people can kind of come together and be excited for this event,” he said. “My friend I’m going with is probably the most opposite political ideology you can have from me, but we’re still going together.”

Junior Brian Vogt received a ticket to the inauguration through his internship in the office of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. The experience of living and working in the capital, Vogt said, is an eye-opening look at how politics works.

“You can learn a lot about how the government works from a textbook, but until you actually see what happens, there’s a big different between those two things,” Vogt said.

As a new Congress begins its work after an election, Vogt said he found the influence of voters’ opinions and fundraising to be striking on the Hill.

“I think everyone for the most part on Capitol Hill has good intentions and wants to do good things,” he said. “But the issue is they have to get reelected every six years, every four years, and when you have that pressure … getting reelected, keeping that job, that really influences their everyday life to an unbelievable extent.”

The Washington Program attracted Vogt, a finance major, despite his lack of interest in a political career.

“I really thought [the Washington Program] would be a good opportunity to see what you’re going to be up against if you run your own company or if you’re in the business world,” Vogt said.

Mleczko, however, said his semester in the district is “a test run” for the kind of career he might pursue in advocacy or policy work. He is currently interning with a small advocacy group that deals with low-income programs, and his internship work will closely monitor the debates on budget and spending cuts.

“Speaking from someone that’s really interested and passionate about politics, you’re right in the middle of everything going on,” Mleczko said. “What you’re reading in the papers is happening just blocks away from you, and that’s something really cool.”

The day before the presidential inauguration, junior Wendy Hatch was indeed standing just blocks away from the site of today’s events. She sat at a table in front near the National Mall, passing out buttons and flyers for C-SPAN to promote the network’s Inauguration Day election coverage.

As an intern in the international division of C-SPAN, Hatch said she is hoping to build experience for a future career in global politics and government work.

“It’s a great way to learn a different side of politics,” she said. “You learn things [at C-SPAN] … that you wouldn’t necessarily learn in the classroom or interning on the Hill.”

On her way to work, Hatch walks past the Capitol. Today, she and her friends in the Washington Program will stand in front of that same building to see Obama publicly swear his oath of office.

“It’s cool to live through it and not have to watch it on the news,” Counts said, “To actually be right in the middle of it.”