Adventures in DC

Utilizing the STEP funds, I was able to participate in a program through the Honors & Scholars center here at The Ohio State University, entitled Scholars DC.  The program required an application, and ultimately 20 second year scholars students were selected.  The overall experience had two aspects; a spring semester seminar during which we discussed the history of Washington, DC, leadership roles in DC, characteristics of leaders, how to conduct yourself during an informational interview, and other related topics; and a two week spring semester trip to Washington, DC.  The STEP money paid for the trip in full and gave me a bit of extra money for food and additional activities.

The excursion in Washington was also broken up into two sections, the first week consisting of group meetings and behind the scenes tours, leaving the second week open for individual itineraries, namely informational interviews with various leaders in fields pertaining to our interests. There was also sporadic free time throughout the entire trip which I filled with visits to various museums including the Natural History Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of American History, the Newseum (which is dedicated to all sorts of news), and the National Museum of Crime and Punishment.

I was able to attend two classes while at the Museum of Crime and Punishment. One was a Decomposition Lab that consisted of a lecture explaining the different types and phases of decomposition and what forensic technicians look for to determine time and manner/cause of death as well as an actually laboratory exercise in which we identified the type of bug and did calculations to determine the time frame of death. The second class that I attended was Exploring Forensics and consisted of everything from how to lift fingerprints to how detectives track suspects. Through the two classes, I learned a general overview of nearly every aspect of forensics, which was a great opportunity for the hands on experience as well as to see what actually happens rather than what is shown on TV.

During the first week, I attended a variety of group meetings and tours, with about nine other scholars, which were truly extremely unique experiences.  I was able to tour the National Security Agency where we were able to listen to presentations from two individuals about their responsibilities and equipment that they use.  We toured the Central Intelligence Agency and were privileged enough to hear from an agent that was involved in the capture and subsequent killing of Osama Bin Laden.  My group also spent some time exploring the Federal Bureau of Investigation Training Academy at Quantico, Virginia. There we toured the facilities, watched some shooting practice, and visited Hogan’s Alley, the fake “town” which the Bureau uses for its training exercises.    We also spent an afternoon touring the Secret Service Headquarters and then traveling to the Drug Enforcement Administration to hear a presentation.  We also had a behind the scenes tour of the Pentagon during which we had the opportunity to sit in a conference room and have a conversation with one of the highest ranking generals in the entire US Armed Forces.

In addition to those tours, we also had numerous discussions with individuals with varying degrees of leadership authority in DC. On the steps of the Capitol Building, we met with Delaware Senator Tom Carper who allowed each of us to ask a question, and whom gave me his business card to further discuss my questions on college tuition rates and the government’s involvement in the process of paying for higher education. We also met with the staff people of multiple other senators.   The Bipartisan Policy Center was also gracious enough to host a discussion with us detailing what they do, what they plan to do, and their views on current political situations and issues. Rich Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, also took time out of his busy schedule to meet with us and discuss the many facets that the CFPB deals with.

Perhaps my favorite visit, which was actually an optional after our normal hours visit, was to the DC offices of Sidley Austin LLP.  This prestigious law firm has offices in major cities around the world, including Hong Kong, London, Brussels, Sydney, Singapore, New York, Chicago, and many more.  A small group of about 7 of us scholars were able to sit at a giant conference table and have a question and answer session with one of the partners there. He even told numerous anecdotes about certain Supreme Court Justices and other well-known people that shall remain nameless in this paper. It was extremely eye opening to actually hear from a lawyer at a private firm and understand the reality of their daily responsibilities and such. This visit helped me to confirm that law school is indeed the best direction for me.

With my varied interests and pseudo indecision regarding my post graduations plans, I set up a myriad of informational interviews with professionals in the different fields.  My interests culminate around the fields of criminology and law, psychology, and higher education.  With this, I was able to converse with individuals in various leadership positions regarding their daily responsibilities and the path that got them to their current position.

My first visit was with Lori Beyer at Community Connections, the largest non-profit mental health clinic in DC. When I first arrived at Community Connections, I had to wait for Lori in the waiting room with all of the patients. A lot of these people have substance abuse problems in addition to severe mental illness, and a good portion of them are homeless or living in extreme poverty, simply put, the waiting room was an experience in itself. During the meeting, which took place in Lori’s office, we discussed her background, my background and interests, the history of Community Connections, and she shared stories about patients that stood out or things of that nature. We also spoke a bit about internship opportunities that Community Connections offers, since Lori is the internship coordinator. However, the internships are only for graduate students, so there is still a few years until that would be a possibility. It amazed me the energy that every staff member put in there, the compassion and care that they showed for their “consumers” as Lori called them. There was even a situation while I was there in which some meal cards were stolen from one of the counselor’s offices. That was a much different experience than the previous week of group visits.

After Community Connections, I went to the John A. Wilson Building to meet with the Deputy Mayor for Education, Abigail Smith. I was impressed with how involved she is in the community. I assumed that her job would be more paperwork and behind the scenes, however, she holds meetings open to all community members almost weekly to keep them updated on what she is doing and to get their feedback and ideas. We also spoke about what issues are most prevalent in the school systems, the largest being unequal access and truancy. It didn’t surprise me that the same issues are prevalent almost everywhere when it comes to school systems. We discussed how even in the private schools there is a level of inequality, just like public schools. Deputy Mayor Smith said she would ideally love to eliminate the inequality and give every child the same education, but that is just not possible. Any sort of change to the ways in which school systems have always operated would take years, and while she is working on things to help, there are other issues and she can’t spend as much time as she would like combatting inequality. In regards to the truancy issue, we took a look at some of the reasoning that students in different districts were giving, and the line was very evident between the classes. There were children that were simply not going just because they didn’t want to and there were students that couldn’t go because they had to work or take care of younger siblings. Even education brings out the two very different sides of DC which I was able to see.

The next meeting that I had was a lunch at Panera Bread in Tenleytown with Nathan Slusher, the Director of Academic and Career Advising at the School of International Service at American University. This meeting was more about the logistics of the job, because I am a Peer Career Advisor for the College of Arts and Sciences, so it is one of the many career possibilities for me. We did start with his background, he got both his bachelors and masters degrees at OSU, and then had a few jobs before being tenured at George Washington in their advising department, but went to American when the higher position became available. As Director of Academic and Career Advising, Nathan spends a good portion of his time answering emails, doing paperwork, or meeting with advisors and departments in order to make sure everyone is on the same page. We discussed that since his promotion he does not get as much interaction with students as he would like, but that goes with the job. Nathan was extremely helpful in regards to giving advice about resumes builders and even job expectations. He explained that he was a history major and thought he would be a high school teacher, but plans change with opportunities. We did talk a bit about admissions to schools such as American and George Washington versus OSU, and how he did not see much of a difference in quality of education or resources. Finances are a major part of the college selection process and we did talk about graduate school and what investments were worth making. All in all, it was a really helpful, informative lunch hour.

While in DC I also got to fulfill a psychology student’s dream of visiting Saint Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital. I spoke with Emily Monahan, who had just officially accepted her position as the Director of Community Outreach. We sat down in the Cafeteria at the hospital and spoke about the background and the patients, as well as why she chose the mental health field. Like many of my other visits, she said that it was more of an opportunity that she took than a plan that she had. Given that I am on the service committee of the Leadership Council for the Humanities Scholars and have an interest in service, the main focus of our conversation was the community outreach and volunteer involvement that Saint Elizabeths has. They have many programs to keep in touch with the surrounding community, such as movie nights and art nights that are hosted at the Hospital. Emily also told me that volunteers range in all ages and there are many that are regulars and some people that only come once and do jobs from reading to patients to passing out food or flyers or showing people around the museum that the Hospital has filled with artifacts from both the history of the hospital and psychology in general. We also discussed the most prevalent disorders at the Hospital and how the majority of the patients come to be there. It was a nice mix of both the volunteer and the medicine side of Saint Elizabeths.

On Thursday, my day was spent with two other scholars at the Fairfax County Sheriff’s department meeting with a few different individuals. First of all, Andrea Ceisler, the Public Information Officer, met with us and walked with us throughout all of the tours that we did. The day started in her office with a bit about herself and what she does, as well as a little history and trivia about FairFax County. Interestingly enough, similar to the other professionals that I met with, Andrea had a few jobs and took more opportunities than having an actual set plan. Currently, she is in charge of public relations such as the website, flyers, contacts, and other things of that nature. Andrea was amazing in setting up the tours of the courthouse and jail and for setting us up with a few other people along the way.

Our tour guide for the courthouse and jail was Lt. Steve Elbert, who was extremely friendly and helpful. During the tour of the courthouse we were able to sit in on a few hearings from traffic court and a couple of drug possession cases. Lt. Elbert was great about giving us information about the courthouse, I was surprised to hear that even during the week, the line for the courthouse is usually extremely long and out of the door. The jail is very interesting in the fact that it has numerous types of supervision all in one jailhouse, which is a bit uncommon. They house both males and females, predominately males, and they hold some overflow from the state prison, but can only do that for so long before the inmate must be transferred. Lt. Elbert was also very good about answering our questions during the tour, even when I asked him if anyone had ever tried to escape from the jail. Interestingly, a few years ago when they were having renovations done, some men did try to escape but each was caught.

As a psychology student who also has an interest in criminology, my personal favorite part of the visit to FairFax County was speaking to Dr. Lou Rosato, the department head for the mental health staff. He was kind enough to show us the ward where patients are kept during intensive treatments and explain to us about the different types of treatments they provide and the different types of illnesses that they work with. There are actually quite a few inmates that have a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and there are even more that have co-morbid substance abuse disorders. While Dr. Rosato said that the jail does not do competency exams on site anymore, they do care for around 300 inmates at any given time, which is impressive. We did discuss the fact that they can’t have any true treatment regiments because of the limited amount of time that inmates are at the jail, however Dr. Rosato and his staff do try to keep tabs and to refer the patients to mental health professionals when they are released. The mental health field operating in a jail is definitely interesting and fast paced.

All in all, the trip got me excited for any of my fields of interest.  In some ways, the trip made my post-graduation plans even more varied, but at the same time, it did help me to narrow down my top choice, law school.  However, a consistent theme from all of the professionals that I spoke with was to take the opportunities that come your way because sometimes even the best of plans do not work out.  This is advice that I am going to keep in the back of my mind when confronting all of the anxieties of entrance exams and applications next year.  Along with being the driving force in my decision process, my time in DC also provided me with a strong network of contacts in my areas of interest that would be available to answer questions, provide advice, or general help that I may need in the future. I could not be happier with the results of the program because the experiences I had during the Scholars DC trip helped to foster a new career path for me, and provided me with invaluable resources to pursue it.