Being Neighbors with Obama

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Photo opportunity with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Frank Underwood from House of Cards once said, “Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value is.” House of Cards is a political drama television series set in present-day Washington D.C. following a fictional Frank Underwood, a Democrat congressman and the majority whip at U.S. House of Representative in his journey to a greater power. The show portrays the ins and outs of politics in Washington D.C. through all the glamour and the dirt. Last year, I was at the center of it all, in Washington D.C. Standing inside the White House, looking at the oval office, I thought to myself, “How did I get here?”

I moved from Surabaya to the United States in 2011 with hopes of getting into University of California (UC), Berkeley. When I got in to UC Berkeley, I was eager to experience everything Berkeley has to offer. A special opportunity came to me through an email one day, talking about the University of California Washington DC Program (UCDC). The program enables University of California students (not just from UC Berkeley) to spend a semester or a quarter in the nation’s capital doing part-time internship and learning more about politics through the offered classes. Students stay in the UC Washington Center, a multi-campus residential, instructional, and research center right in the heart of the nation’s capital, only a short walk from the White House. It was overall a life-changing experience for me.

 In front of the White House door

The biggest part of the UCDC program is the internship portion. Students interned in diverse places, such as the White House and the Congress, government agencies, lobbyists, think tanks, research organizations, media, and various non-profits. Internships are not limited to just politics; many students also took internships related to arts, health, environment, and science. I personally interned at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Reestablished by President Obama’s Executive Order in 2009, the Initiative works to improve the quality of life and opportunities for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by facilitating increased access to and participation in federal programs where they remain underserved.

Internship experience differed widely depending on where students interned. My personal internship experience was very dynamic, challenging, thrilling, and valuable. The biggest chunk of my responsibility was managing events. The Initiative constantly holds different events across the nation throughout the years, including technical assistance training, roundtables, conferences, webinars, and conference calls. Interns play a substantial role in making sure the events run smoothly and according to plan. Other than events, I get to be a part of interesting projects such creating website portal and making informational videos. Being in a fast-paced environment working on important and sensitive projects can be exhausting and stressful at times. Luckily, my supervisors were all very supportive and cared a lot about the growth and development of the interns.

 Photo opportunity with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Being an intern also came with its special perks. I was able to step inside the White House on various occasions. In December, The White House started putting up Christmas decorations and we got invited to take a tour around! It felt very special looking at Obama’s Christmas trees and their cute Bo and Sunny structure. Not only do we get to see festive ornaments, we also got to meet amazing and inspiring people. We met the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and had a discussion with him on the state of the U.S. education system. On another occasion, I attended an event where the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro spoke. We also had the privilege of meeting Gary Locke, the former U.S. Ambassador to China. Not to mention meeting hundreds of other brilliant people from the community and dedicated government officials who are all passionate about making an impact in society. Each and every person I met in DC graciously taught me practical skills and life lessons to keep forever.

 Together with intern colleagues in front of the Capitol

While we took part in internship four days a week, we could not forget our primary role as students. Most of the classes were offered during the evenings, and students would take the morning class during their day off. Semester students usually take two classes, while those on the quarter system would take one class. UCDC offers a unique list of classes taught by experienced professionals. For example, I took a class on Lobbying and Money Influence in Government, taught by a former lobbyist for a huge multinational corporation. The class was not just filled with theories like what you would find in a regular classroom; instead, it was full of his account of first-hand experience lobbying both in the United States and internationally. It was very candid, honest, and insightful. Not into politics? There are plenty of other exciting classes, like the Spies and the Intelligence class. Anonymous former spies came in to talk about their experiences, and students even get to be ‘spies’ themselves through a simulation at the International Spy Museum. Or you can have fun with the Theater of Politics class with a playwright/director who takes you to see a play almost every week. Those are just a small glimpse of what UCDC has to offer.

 Selfie during the White House Garden tour

Adding to the excitement in-class, you get to meet fellow classmates from a diverse background. UCDC has a consortium of not just the nine UCs, but from Carnegie Mellon University, University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, and University of Pennsylvania. Having classmates from different universities really spiced up the discussion in class, opening us to new perspectives that you might not get otherwise in one university. Not only in class, friends in the UCDC Center formed a tight bond. UCDC has broadened my network beyond people in Berkeley, California.

All in all, the UCDC Program was a memorable part of my college life. Through challenges and rewards, exhaustion and bliss, stress and joy, I felt myself grow so much more. After a semester in Washington D.C., I went back to Berkeley bringing new insights, fascinating stories, and life-long friends. While I still do not have the power that Frank Underwood possesses in House of Cards, at least I have tasted a glimpse of that world.

Photo credit: personal collection