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Studying abroad in Washington

Lukas Mansour | Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Like many sophomores at Notre Dame, I always believed that when I “studied abroad” my junior year, I would actually be in a different country.

Whether it was London or Rome, I, like many other students, hoped to venture outside of the United States in hopes of learning about the culture and inner-workings of another country.

As I moved through my sophomore year, however, I learned that even as a political science major, I still did not have a solid understanding of what goes on in the United States itself.

The Washington Program provided me with an opportunity that no other place could — the opportunity to gain real work experience in a field I was interested in, all while living in a world-class city that operated at the very center of America’s being.

While many of my fellow classmates overlooked Notre Dame’s Washington Program for these chances to go abroad, (and by all means, that was also a great decision) I found myself in Washington, and I have been lucky enough to have many experiences and opportunities that can only be found in the nation’s capital.

As young professionals in Washington, we’ve already been exposed to a wide variety of events and experiences that have allowed us to learn and grow in a way that Notre Dame could never be able to provide. Every week, students go on a public policy visit to various places in the Washington area. These public policy visits comprise three credits of what is a six-credit public policy course (yes, that means three credits for simply visiting the most interesting places Washington has to offer).

The highlight of these visits is unquestionably the visit to the White House, including meetings in the Executive Office Building and a tour of the West Wing. The visit allowed us to get unparalleled insight into what goes on in the White House on a daily basis.

“I felt like one of the lucky few that gets to see the inner workings of government, although I didn’t particularly like the new décor,” junior Henry Eggers said. “I felt privileged to be there and I hope to go back someday, but for a slightly different reason.”

“I really enjoyed the interview part [of the White House experience],” junior Jee-Seun Choi said. “My favorite part was just listening to how things work in the West Wing, and hearing about people’s experience when their bosses change.”

Taking classes in Washington is a unique experience for several reasons. Because of the small size of the program, students are able to receive individual attention from professors that are at the top of their particular fields. In the required course on public policy, students hold discussions on many of the most significant issues in society and try to explore different methods to tackle these problems.

“Most of our professors work in the field they teach,” sophomore Christine D’Alessandro said. “Having small classes allows for active, learning and engaging class discussions.”

“The classes have much more of a practical, applicable feel than most political science classes we would take back on campus,” junior Julie Kirk said.

Often times, professors will bring in a colleague who is an authority on a particular issue, giving students an opportunity to meet people who are very influential in the political sphere. The American Political Journalism class, for example, gives students the opportunity to meet Washington Post journalists and take trips to various media outlets such as CNN.

“[My American Political Journalism] class is my favorite,” D’Alessandro said. “It’s taught right on the news floor of the Washington Post and we have incredible speakers each week.”

The Washington Program also provides a city-school experience that many Notre Dame students may have longed to try but have never had the chance to.

Students are housed in an apartment complex in one of the nicest and most vibrant areas in Washington. The apartment houses hundreds of kids from other universities across the country that have also come to Washington to explore various internship opportunities.

“There’s always something to do here,” D’Alessandro said. “There are plenty of museums, festivals, rallies and shows, and it’s easy to travel to other cities such as Philadelphia and New York.”

“Washington D.C is an incredible combination of past and present,” junior Mike Johnson said. “You really cannot go anywhere without seeing or experiencing some part of American history.”

But as any Washington Program student would tell you, in the end it is the internship that is the backbone of the entire program.

“The policy visits are unmatched, but ultimately, the internship is what sets the Washington Program apart,” Nesi said. “No other program gives students a comparable opportunity.”

Nesi also sees an additional value in interning during the semester.

“During the semester, there’s a lot happening — Congress is in session, elections are going on — and there’s not a glut of interns to do it all,” Nesi said. “During the semester, most interns aren’t just sorting mail or making coffee, they’re getting substantive experience that will help them when the time comes to get and actually do a real job.”

Many students feel that an internship in a big city environment such as Washington will better prepare them for life after graduation.

“I definitely feel that [my internship] will help me in the future,” junior Alyssa Morones said. “I love that my internship allows me to deal with real-world issues while giving me better insight into the inner-workings of Washington culture.”

“I work at the South Korean embassy and working at the embassy helped me find out what I am really interested in,” Choi said. “I am really enjoying working there, and I’m finding out more about myself, which has been a good experience for me.”

Many students who participate in the Washington Program wind up returning to work in the city after graduation. Nesi, who is himself an alum of the Washington Program, currently works for the Obama administration in the White House. The program has played an integral part in forming a link between Notre Dame and the nation’s capital.

“Washington Program students, both current and former, are wonderful ambassadors for the University in our nation’s capital,” said Tom Kellenberg, the program’s executive director.

Notre Dame prides itself on educating both the heart and the mind, emphasizing the great importance of learning outside the classroom. The Washington Program is furthering Notre Dame’s mission for its students. It is truly one of the best-kept secrets at Notre Dame.

“This has been my first time living in an American city, and it’s given me a great impression,” Choi said. “It’s so different from Notre Dame, but I really like being with all different types of people and doing many different things.”

Lukas Mansour is a junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.