Washington is a weird town.
It has the power to change your thinking, challenge your sympathies and alter your interests––and that’s if you approach it correctly. It’s composed of much more than the silver-tongued senators portrayed in movies, and likewise there’s a lot more to see than the token shot of the national mall (although it is impressive). If there are two things you’ll get in spades upon arriving in D.C., they are new experiences and tips on handling new experiences.
Many of those tips contain piercing insight and are endlessly useful, but don’t become so concerned with following the tips that you miss what’s going on around you. Following a cheat sheet that reminds you what to say, wear, think or do in a given set of circumstances will encumber more than if you had dived in with a little pluck and no plan. I won’t trouble you with the quotidian how-to list: you’ll learn by experience which side of the escalator to stand on, how to sneak onto the Metro without paying (this is not WJC endorsed) and what to order at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
My advice is simple, and it’s more about you than D.C. Heaven knows what you will see and do in the next four months, but I can promise you how much you gain from your time will a direct return on how much of yourself you invest. What you get out of this semester depends on you.
When it comes to your internship, jump on each opportunity and throttle it for all it’s worth. It your editors tell you to write, write like the future of journalism depends on each keystroke. If they tell you to fetch coffee, fetch coffee like it’s a Pulitzer category. You’ll know you have a good internship if you’re terrified every morning, stressed all day and exhausted at night. I sat down at my desk with a lump in my throat each day and flinched every time my editor called my name, but I loved every minute of it and I learned more about reporting in that newsroom than I had learned in all my college classes up to that point. But you have to put yourself out there. For example, you may cover a court case and while your sitting there on that hard wooden bench come up with a question about the history of the case for the defense attorney. But then you think maybe you can just Google it later and spare yourself an intimidating interview. Ask the attorney. He’s probably stood in this courtroom thousands of times and shook the hands of dozens of sweaty-palmed interns, but you only get this one story. He won’t notice if you ask a dumb question, but your editor will notice if you don’t ask the right one. Be fearless. I don’t regret any of the times I made a fool of myself during an interview, but I do regret not jumping on opportunities. Humiliation will pass, but the stories you write will be around for a while. Unfortunately, like the escalator many of these things you don’t really learn until somebody yells at you.
The most important thing I can tell you is to cultivate your relationships. It’s pretty scary in the first few classes as you take surreptitious peeks at your classmates and think who are these weirdos? That guy could definitely be an axe murderer. In my first encounter with my roommate, Ian, we shook hands, mumbled hellos and he promptly dropped onto the bed and began strumming on his 11-string guitar (I suspect the 12th string died in some previous beating) and to my horror, he sang. While Ian was belting out “Tombstone Blues” like there was a savage rodent stuck in his pants, I was making plans to sleep on the roof. (Incidentally, he liked to practice up there as well). But I know now my semester wouldn’t have been the same without Ian and his 11-string instrument of torture.
I’m not exaggerating when I say your relationships will make or break this semester. Washington is a thrilling place, but if you explore it alone your vigor will fade by October and your schoolwork and internship will suffer. Having a close-knit group of people who share your experiences and know you well is vital to your success in D.C. When your classmates go off to their various and sundry internships, it’s like having a network of informants scattered all over the city to learn the best places to eat or check out a poetry slam. And the more eyes and ears you bring with you each time you go out, the more you’ll see and hear in each place.
I believe the more cohesive the WJC class, the better the experience for each individual. How close should you get to your classmates? I married one of mine. Like I said, what you get out of this semester is up to you.
Top Image: Luke Reiter (Bethel University) and Tiffany Sun (Biola University)
Bottom Image: Luke Reiter and Ashley (Gipson) Reiter of Master's College.