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Up close learning, far away

| Friday, January 30, 2015

If you are a sophomore or ambitious freshman, then you’ll soon get an email telling you whether, after all the information sessions, recommendation requests and essays you pounded into your MacBook at the last minute, you have Notre Dame’s blessing to spend a semester in this or that corner of the world.

“Study abroad” evokes images of getting tossed from a bar by a bouncer with a funny accent, petting alpacas as you overlook Machu Picchu, taking the ever-reliable Ryan Air across Europe from hostel to hostel and posting every step of the journey for all of Facebook to “like.”

With that in mind, I became less and less sure last year about giving up a semester and a football season for Washington D.C., a place I thought I could plug into via C-SPAN. Cutting away from Notre Dame to venture into the exotic and unfamiliar can be scary. My biggest fear two autumns ago was venturing into the banal. “This Town” speaks English in a flat, familiar accent and the only strange animals you’ll see are caged in the National Zoo and in Congress.

But if you like politics and policy, then don’t confuse proximity with familiarity. My experience in D.C. was an educational adventure that I could not have had elsewhere and certainly not on-campus.

Possibly the only reason to tolerate the exponentially-growing tuition and fees to attend a school of this caliber is to be constantly surrounded by talented and interesting people — peers and professors who will push you to discover or realize plans you might not have know about otherwise. Breaking the bank even further to study in another part of the world makes sense only if it puts you in touch with people who are just as interesting (if in completely different ways) and provides you some other intangible benefit unavailable to you in South Bend, Indiana.

In D.C., I found a town full of young, fascinating and underpaid people who want to help other young, fascinating and underpaid people. My semester there put me at the same tables as Bob Woodward, a titan of investigative reporting, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, a Notre Dame graduate whom The Washington Post called “the most important player you’ve never heard of.” I worked four days a week in a senator’s office and witnessed how a bill does or does not become law, what political grandstanding looks like in person, the difficulty of explaining your boss’s stances on foreign policy to constituents when it “hits the fan” and Paul Ryan’s widow’s peak.

There are types of learning that are only accessible by travel. You could read about high rates of burnout among junior Hill Staff, or you could sit in on a meeting between a 26-year-old legislative aide out of Princeton and two lobbyists making 10 times her salary. You could swim for months in empirical studies on the polarization of Congress and the electorate over the past four decades, or you can watch up close as a combination of forces beyond the comprehension of veteran congressional staffers pushes the nation to the point of considering default. You could read Michelle Nunn’s leaked campaign memo and its page on “message discipline,” or you could get chastised by your supervisor for giving an off-the-record statement to keep an angry constituent from coming unglued on the phone.

My study “abroad” in D.C. might only make sense for somebody whose dad made them watch “Meet the Press” from the age of four onward. But I think there’s a lesson there for how to make your off-campus experience a continuation of — or a starting point for — your personal Notre Dame adventure. Whether it takes you to our nation’s capital, another nation’s capital or somewhere in between, do your research and don’t miss out on the up-close learning experiences away from Northern Indiana. At the very least the weather will be better.

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

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

Contact Alex