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Students in Focus

In the People’s House

The last six months have gone by very quickly.

In December last year, I was stepping on a plane to embark on the journey of a lifetime – heading to Washington D.C. to participate in the 20th and final instalment of Uni-Capitol Washington Internship Program (UCWIP).

The UCWIP saw me spending two months working in the office of Democratic Congressman Mark DeSaulnier of California.

Prior to this trip, I’d left Australia just twice … once to Hawaii and once to Fiji. Both times, I was travelling with family. Needless to say, two months working in another country was a pretty big step for me … and I’m so, so glad I took it.

The best part of an international exchange is full immersion in the local culture. I always thought I knew a fair amount about the United States, having grown up watching The West Wing and reading biographies of US politicians. Probably unsurprisingly, the reality of life on The Hill was pretty different. I loved getting to see the real stuff, and everyone was enthusiastic to tell me all about themselves and their stories.

That was my favourite thing about working in the US Capitol Building – the people I met. The Hill is the meeting place for anyone wanting anything from the halls of power. You’d meet schoolkids from Texas one day, veterans from Hawaii the next, and nurses from New York.

I remember being in line for lunch behind Joe Kennedy III (a grandson of Robert Kennedy, former US Attorney General and former President John F. Kennedy’s brother), and seeing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, on the first day of the new Congress.

I’d spent so long researching Congressman DeSaulnier to apply for the program, getting to meet the man in person was a true highlight. I won’t soon forget the stories he told, or how he opened up his office to me.

I found that Americans are very politically invested and willing to share their political opinions. The days I spent on the phone to Congressman DeSaulnier’s constituents revealed that, but even in my time holidaying in New York and Los Angeles, people were quite upfront with their beliefs.

I often find Australia to be somewhat reserved in its political discourse, so I loved this aspect of my time in the US. Their views are also so diverse, which always made picking up the phone an interesting experience … you never knew what you were going to get.

My Congressional experience started with the swearing in of the 116th Congress. It was one of those things that we often see on TV from a world away but can’t fully contextualise unless we’re actually there.

We see footage of Congresspeople shaking hands and smiling, but we don’t get to see the parties that take place back in their offices (Congressman DeSaulnier didn’t have a party, but lots of others did).

This whole trip helped me look beyond, to consider what is being left unsaid, how what is being said fits into the wider context, and how little of a story is really portrayed by a camera.

For a communications student like me, lifting the veil on a place like the US House of Representatives means understanding the hours of work that goes into a 30-word statement … and the two hours worth of phone calls that come into an office after that statement is delivered.

Everything outside the formal program was fantastic too. Visiting Philadelphia and seeing the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed was a definite highlight. Our country is pretty young – in all fairness, the US is too – but the immense sense of history was really something. I wonder if the framers knew back then what their rebellious, treasonous idea would become.

It makes you think about the transitive nature of politics; what will the latest political machinations look like to a student 200 years from now. The scale of everything in the US makes you recognise the strength and fortitude of the country … it’s pretty amazing to think that it all started in a small room in Philadelphia.

Witnessing the State of the Union, no matter your thoughts on the President of the day, was also an amazing experience. I wasn’t even in the room, but I could hear the applause through the walls, when the First Lady walked into the chamber. It’s the little things like that, I won’t ever forget.

There’s so much that I will take away from my time in the US, from the people I met to the understanding of politics it gave me. There are three key things though.

The first is how lucky we are in Australia … I think about the opportunities I’ve had in my life, and how different it could’ve been if I had grown up elsewhere. I grew up on welfare and took on a HECS debt to attend university; this happens in the US too, but it’s certainly much easier here in Australia.

Secondly, I was able to apply all that I’ve learned in my time at UC. I wasn’t interning directly in my field of study, but being fully immersed in an environment like Congress teaches you so much, and so quickly. An internship was a fantastic way for me to try out a role without fully committing to it.

Finally, on a personal note – I was hiding in my shell before I took the steps to apply to this program. I didn’t know it at the time, but this trip would truly open my eyes to the world around me. Not only did it challenge what I thought I knew about the US, I learned so much about myself and made lifelong friends along the way.

My time at UC has been spread over some six years of study … and this trip has absolutely been the highlight. The support I received from UC, the inspiring interns with whom I did the program and the immersive experience in Congress made this a once-in-a-lifetime.

The program was the perfect way to conclude my undergraduate studies at UC and give me clarity about what comes next.

My final word is this – push yourself outside of your comfort zone and you’ll be surprised what you can do. I surprised myself, and I reckon you can too.

Here's more on Jarred's trip.

Words and photos by Jarred Synnott

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