Montanans Go to Washington, D.C. by Katie Nichols
Over the break, 14 students enrolled in a chance to go to Washington, D.C. to attend the inauguration of President Obama through a Washington Center program. For 11 days, these students went to meetings and lectures and were able to tour and explore different aspects of the city. We were able to meet up with two of them and hear their personal views on the experience; Savanna Cochran, a senior marketing student graduating this spring, and Eliza Allison, a political science major also graduating this spring.
AE: How did you find out about this opportunity?
Savanna: Through a Davidson Honors College email. They send out those emails all the time and they had a couple programs. That one actually sounded pretty relevant to me.
Eliza: I had a class last semester with Professor Saldin, who was our faculty leader in D.C., and he announced it and had Tony Cerise who works with The Washington Center come in and talk to us. I’m a political science major so a couple of my classes talked about it.
AE: Did you receive any scholarships to help fund?
Savanna: Yes I did. I think I received maybe $500 or $600.
Eliza: Yes. I received one through the Academic Enrichment Fund and then I received one through the DHC.
AE: What was the experience like and what did you do?
Savanna: It was a blast! The first week, we had lectures every morning from a lot of really interesting people. I learned a lot and got to see some very different viewpoints. And then each afternoon, we had site visits. So we visited think tanks, embassies, congressmen’s offices, and a number of different things. We checked out a lot of different groups that are there.
Eliza: For me, I am graduating in the spring so I have about 3 months of school and I thought I had everything all figured out, but after going on this trip I feel like I might change my plans a little bit. I think I am planning on interning there next fall. I definitely caught the Washington, D.C. bug. On our average day, we had class in the mornings. So we had a professor and then there were guest speakers from all different walks of life such as people from the White House and some worked at think tanks. That was our mornings from 8:30 until noon. In the afternoons we would have different site visits. We did all sorts of things including going to Heritage, which is one of the big think tanks, meeting with our congressman Steve Daines one of the afternoons, touring the Capitol, speaking with an Ambassador with the Middle East Institute, and going to the Israeli Embassy which had the strictest security I have ever gone through!
AE: What was the best part of it for you?
Savanna: I think there were two events that were really rewarding for me personally. The first was we had a meeting with the Middle East Institute and they brought in the former US Ambassador to Kuwait. She was able to offer a very in-depth and thoughtful firsthand view of the work she had done, what it is like to be in the position and working in a country where safety could have been an issue. She gave a really comprehensive view of that and I found that very personally interesting. The other was a reception for Jim Messina, who was a former University of Montana graduate and Obama’s campaign manager during the last election. President Royce was there, Peggy Kerr, and of course, Max Baucus and Jon Tester were there. So it was just a lot of Montana people all getting together in D.C. and there was a real sense of community that Montanans support Montanans. I got a good opportunity to talk with Jim Frisk, who is the legislative assistant to the Finance Committee, which is a position that I may be interested in pursuing later on. So having that altogether in one place was really enjoyable.
Eliza: When we were there, I became acutely aware of how cool it is to be from Montana because we do have, sort of, a unique situation where there are a lot less constituents per senator and per congressman so we got the chance to meet with Max Baucus, Jon Tester and Steve Daines several times in a couple different capacities. I just felt really lucky to be a Montanan. My favorite event was actually a UM alumni event that was held in D.C. in honor of Jim Messina. It was really fun kind of a networking party and all of the people there were alumni of the university. It was fun to hear their stories and to see how far they have come and still be connected to Montana.
AE: What would you take away from this opportunity?
Savanna: Really it opened my eyes to some of the opportunities that I hadn’t considered in D.C. I have always been politically minded even though that isn’t my major and it’s a wonderful, exciting place. I would take away that it is also very manageable. Once I got there, I knew a lot of people. In the evenings, we didn’t all stay as a group so I got the chance to hop on the Metro to meet up with either friends from UM that were not on the trip but had moved to D.C. or friends from high school that had moved to D.C. and were now working in positions there. It was just very manageable. There were people to help you, people you knew, and it was easy to get around.
Eliza: For me, I feel like I was able to put aside some of the political biases I have. We met with people from all spectrums of politics. I have my own opinions and I’m not really changing them based on my experience, but maybe just overall accepting and listening to what other people have to say. Just for me, I had to remind myself to be more open.
AE: Would you encourage other students to apply?
Savanna: Absolutely! I would say this program was great. It was a really short, intensive program, but the facility is beautiful for people considering doing a longer internship in D.C. The Washington Center provides a lot of support for people who may be aren’t as comfortable just moving. They provide a safe living facility and resources so that is really nice. In terms of their short seminar programs, they were great. There is no way I would have been able to have that much exposure to the quality of speakers had I not been there.
Eliza: Definitely! I had never done anything through the Washington Center before and that was the case for most of the students that went. I just thought the experience was wonderful to be able to spend 10 days in D.C. just sort of exploring and taking it all in. That’s where it all started for the United States and being able to be there and go to the inauguration. So much history there.
AE: What have I not asked you that I should have?
Savanna: I would like other students to look at it as a really broad experience. The academic seminar was great. I enjoyed that, but there is a lot that goes on outside such as the social aspect of D.C.; like networking, or even just going out to the bars and meeting people, talking, and hearing different viewpoints. Especially for people that grew up in Montana, it is a very different culture. People have more to say in conversation and there is more diversity so that is probably a really important part of the experience beyond the academic and the political.