D.C. Semester can open doors to careers

In the fall of 2007, Farha Tahir arrived in the nation’s capital and went to work on K Street, the home of numerous think tanks, lobbying firms and advocacy groups. There, Tahir got immersed in researching how U.S. military might could be leveraged with softer elements of foreign policy—e.g., development, diplomacy, and economic integration—for more effective global engagement.

Still in college, Tahir was gaining professional experience in one of the nation’s most competitive work environments, thanks to the Washington, D.C., Semester in International Affairs program, offered through the Division of International Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This fall-semester program for undergraduates combines an international affairs-focused internship and weekly seminars that feature prominent speakers and distinguished UW–Madison alumni who work in professional, academic, and diplomatic fields related to international affairs.

(Applications are now being accepted for the program’s fall 2013 semester. For more information, including application instruction, visit the program website: http://internships.international.wisc.edu/washington-dc-internship/. The deadline is February 22.)

Through the D.C. Semester program, Tahir landed an internship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a non-profit think tank that develops policy recommendations by anticipating global changes.

Today, she works in that same K Street office as a regular staff member.

“What the program does for students is it really exposes them to professional life in a way that being on campus doesn’t,” says Tahir. “D.C. has such a distinct professional culture that if they really want to work in this space and work on similar issues, this is a place you have to live and experience before starting out. The program is a great way to experience that first hand.”

Originally from Wisconsin, Tahir grew up in a political family and always had ambitions to work in the political field. She got her bachelor’s degree in political science and history in 2009, and went on to earn her master’s degree at UW–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.

In 2010, she returned to Washington, where she is now a program coordinator and research associate for the CSIS Africa Program, providing analysis and policy recommendations to various branches of government, the private sector, and the general public.

“Everyone talks about the problems in the world, but being around people actually contributing to fix them, that experience was eye-opening,” Tahir says.

Michelle Mazzeo, a 2009 international studies graduate, came to Washington as part of the same 11-student cohort as Tahir. Mazzeo interned at the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development.

For her, the weekly seminars had nearly as much impact as the internship.

“Each week, we would have either a UW alum speak about their profession in D.C., or we would have discussions or just take time out to talk about our internships,” Mazzeo says.

The students also explored the city, visiting some of Washington’s important institutions, such as the State Department, the World Bank and various embassies.

After returning to Madison, Tahir and Mazzeo started a program called EDGE Project (Empowerment through Development and Gender Equality).

The program focuses on providing UW–Madison students with opportunities to research, create, and implement community development projects abroad. The organization has sent students to Uganda to build relationships by creating farmers associations and women’s craft co-ops, conducting training on family planning, and teaching lessons at the local school. EDGE recently was renamed Tawi UW.

“I don’t think we would have had the professional competence or confidence to start something like that without our time in D.C.,” Tahir says. “The program really is a distinct opportunity to push yourself and to learn what your limits are and to try something new. It’s a phenomenal experience.”

Like Tahir, Mazzeo returned to Washington, where she worked for 10 months as a program associate doing research and outreach for Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, a non-profit dedicated to building women’s leadership in agriculture and natural resources.

Tahir believes that you get as much out of the D.C. semester program as you put into it.

“When it comes to it, D.C., more than other cities, is about who you know and making a lasting impression on people. Staying in touch is a big part of that. The most important thing is keeping in touch with the people you intern with, leave a positive impression. This is a city where networking is very important,” Tahir says.

Mazzeo agrees: “Take every opportunity you can. Don’t let one night go by. Schedule lunch dates, drinks, think actively. This is your pass to D.C.”

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Meanwhile, three of the fall 2012 participants in the D.C. Semester program reflected on their experiences.

“The most memorable experience of the semester for me was the last week of my internship when I was offered a job,” says Michael Aciman of New York City, a senior international studies major who interned at National Defense University, Africa Center. “Unfortunately, I could not take it because I had another semester at the UW to complete before graduating.”

Aciman adds, “Despite not being able to accept a full-time government position, the experience helped me grasp how hard I had worked throughout the course of the semester. Without truly realizing it, I had become a capable and respected person in my office. People in my office began treating me like an employee rather than an intern and I began receiving more and more responsibility.”

“The city lifestyle, the physical landmarks, and the bearings are not new to me,” says Helen Beckner, a District of Columbia native and senior majoring in international studies. “However, after my semester experiencing D.C. as a professional—not as a child, high schooler, or even as a college student—I have noticed that there are many people coming to D.C. who are in their 20s, and they are coming from all over the U.S. and the world, not just the mid-Atlantic, east coast region.”

“As a research assistant at the Center of Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University, I worked with people not only from the U.S., but also from Central and South America,” Beckner says. “D.C. is a very transient place, where people move through various agencies and among other U.S. or foreign cities frequently. … People come and go.”

She adds, “I felt that my work experience was most rewarding because I not only worked diligently and performed well, but I was also proactive in bringing new ideas to the table and was engaging with others. Unlike school, no one is giving you an assignment or required reading.”

“The best part of the D.C. program was the work experience I gained from my internship,” says Jiwon Jun, of Madison, a senior majoring in international studies and environmental studies, who interned at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It was very important to me that I learn how to take the concepts and materials I learned in my courses at UW–Madison and apply them to the real world.”

Jun says, “Through my internship, I not only learned a lot about the global issues I was interested in, such as malnutrition, food security, women’s’ rights, and equity; I was also surprised at how much the internship experience changed the way I understand my values, perspectives, and opinions. The D.C. program has helped me look at these global issues from a completely new perspective. I was no longer looking at the issues from a student or as an academic; I was looking at them from the view of a politician, economist, researcher, or a person working in non-profit organizations.”

— by Jeff Cartwright