Former Fellow Continues Education Work in Washington

I recently had the honor of meeting Rep. Doris Matsui at the portrait unveiling of Rep. George Miller, who is retiring from Congress after forty years of service. (On that note, I also met Rep. Miller!) It was just an incredible opportunity to meet two people I admire greatly. No surprise that a Berkeley alum and a Berkeley neighbor were kind, welcoming, and funny.

The event celebrated Rep. Miller’s tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. John Kline (the current chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce) gave speeches highlighting Rep. Miller’s ability to work across the aisle in order to enact education and labor reform.

I was told over and over again that events like this were rare. One, both parties were in the same room and no one was arguing. Second, this celebration came after the House education committee passed or successfully conferenced (with its Senate counterpart) a wave of bipartisan education and workforce investment bills. Here’s to hopes that the next wave of Congress follows this example.

Trinh Nguyen was a Fall 2013 Matsui Washington Fellow and currently works in education and labor policy in Washington, DC.

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DC Recap: What I’ve Learned From a Semester in Washington

Posted by Matsui Washington Fellow Trinh Nguyen.

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White House rose garden tour (Matsui Washington Fellow Trinh Nguyen center)

I still need to pack. The UCDC building kicks us out tomorrow, and that move-out date totally snuck up on me. These past weeks have been spent going to goodbye dinners for all the quarter students leaving, finishing up projects at my internship, going to professional-social holiday parties (they’re kind of weird), and writing finals and research papers. I’m going to reiterate the same advice I’ve gotten numerous times from professors and UCDC advisers—FINISH YOUR RESEARCH PAPER EARLY. I know a handful of people that finished it weeks in advance, and they spent their last weeks travelling and exploring, stress-free. I, on the other hand, slept an average of 4 hours a night, and crashed on the weekends. (Hopefully this college lifestyle does not follow me into adulthood.)

I’m graduating next week, and am planning on staying in D.C. indefinitely. I spent the majority of the semester considering and reconsidering the move. The Bay is my home, and I want to move back. There were a lot of things that annoyed me about D.C., but I grew to like its idiosyncrasies. And I’m signing a lease today, so hopefully I don’t change my mind after the holidays.

I want to take you all through three things that I found peculiar of D.C. when I first moved out. Over time, I grew to understand them a bit better and it helped my transition into becoming a Washingtonian (haha, I kid myself). So if you’re thinking of doing UCDC (do it!) or making a move out here (that’s up to you), here’s some advice:

01. You don’t have to be a tourist.

The last time I was in Washington, D.C., I was no doubt a tourist. On an eighth grade field trip, my classmates and I experienced D.C. in a tour bus, only hitting the monuments and a handful of museums. I came away with too many postcards and $6 replicas of the Declaration of Independence. When my parents asked me what I learned from the trip, I said that the White House was smaller than I thought.

This time in D.C., I haven’t bought any souvenirs. I don’t feel like a tourist, even though I do many touristy things. My friends and I even rented out bikes to see the monuments at night. (Piece of advice: Do it in the summer. I don’t think my hands ever fully thawed.)

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Lincoln Memorial at Night

A few UCDC students and I were chatting a while back about the differences between the West and East Coasts. We were in our home country, yet felt like outsiders. As young adults tend to do, we were trying to label ourselves. We were in a weird limbo. Nobody automatically assumed we were interns, because we were not a part of the summer intern frenzy. Random people on the street would ask us for directions, and didn’t know that we constantly walked with our Google Maps app on. (Let me tell you about the time, after spending three months in D.C., when I stepped off the metro on the other side of the road, and took ten extra minutes to get home because I was so confused.)

The most salient aspect was just how the East Coast portrayed its American-ness. It sounds kind of ridiculous, because of course the U.S. isn’t all the same. I could tell you a thousand cultural differences between California and Oregon, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Berkeley’s north- and southsides, or Barrows and Soda Hall.

However, it’s obvious that East Coasters see their geographic-specific history as American history.

My public school Californian history studies began with the Russian and Spanish colonization, touched upon the Gold Rush, and focused on the Californian missions. Would anyone who grew up in New York, Maine, or Idaho or Arkansas, know any of that?

But all students have had units on Pennsylvania’s first governor, agricultural practices in Massachusetts, and the development of D.C.

In addition, East Coast history is so ingrained and obvious in everyday life. Aside from a few special places in California, history is kind of obscured. For example, where I grew up there are buildings and schools named after Maria Carrillo, Jack London, and Luther Burbank. Their historical contributions and narratives are recognized, but the majority of people in my hometown would not know who they were. What’s more, they would not define their hometown as “where Maria Carrillo lived.”

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Battlefield Fries restaurant, Gettysburg

When I visited Gettysburg, I saw stores and restaurants called Battlefield Fries, Union Drummer Boy, and General Pickett’s Buffet.

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Plaque identifying Paul Revere’s grave, Boston

I went to Boston and am sure the city was built as a memorial to Paul Revere. I was only in Philadelphia for five hours, and can probably name at least 100 places with “liberty” or “Franklin” in their names.

It’s cool to walk by random buildings and see plaques denoting America’s first dentist or first public school. It’s not that California doesn’t have historical figures and events that deserve recognition, but Californians seem to care less about defining their environment and cities around them.

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Plaque identifying the spot of the first public school in the U.S. in Boston.

Of course, a country began 250 years ago in these Atlantic states, and federal power is still concentrated over there. East Coasters’ pride over their history is understandable.

At the same time, these monuments and memorials can be kind of jarring. The Capitol houses multiple statues (many picked by states), including figures who were pro-slavery, anti-women’s rights, and/or pro-imperialism. Also, the UCDC Center faces Scott Circle, where a statue is dedicated to General Winifred Scott, who historians dub the most accomplished general since George Washington. He helped Andrew Jackson execute the Trail of Tears.

02. Understand that your supervisors know nearly everything.

If you are interested in federal policy, you need to realize that D.C. is the best possible place to work with people who truly understand the arena, and who can answer all of your questions.

It seems that people in D.C. rarely change career tracks. They change jobs frequently, but stay in the same industry. I intern for a bipartisan education lobbying/consulting firm where nearly everyone worked together at one point or another on the Hill. They’ve battled across the aisle, compromised on bills, and wrote legislation together. Right now, my supervisors are advising their clients on potential bill reauthorizations that they originally wrote a decade ago.

If I ever have a question on an education (or labor, healthcare, appropriations, etc.) law, I can talk to the person that helped conceive it, the person who worked to move it through Congress, the person who assisted the federal government in implementing it, and the person who evaluated it later on … all in the same office suite.

I am job searching, and every time I mention an organization (regardless of whether or not it’s education-related), I immediately learn that this or that person worked with someone in the firm.

There are two things to point out from this. First, the people working in education (or healthcare, economic policy, environmental economics, etc.) ten or fifteen years ago are the same people working there now. If you come to D.C. now, you will be able to poke at the minds of very experienced, knowledgeable people. I had a weird “celebrity”-shock moment when I realized that the principals of the firm I intern for wrote education policies that affected me back when I was in elementary and middle school.

Second, since these professionals have been around for so long, many are choosing to leave D.C. to raise families or to retire. That makes D.C. prime for young professionals to enter in the field, now more than ever. Of course the job market is competitive, but I’ve realized that D.C. has a soft spot for big public universities, especially for Berkeley.

03. You gotta network, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve been to a fair amount of networking events, including happy hours and holiday parties that blend social and professional. It’s awkward. I’m horrible at it. I don’t like the power divide. I am a lowly intern wanting someone more accomplished to lend me a hand. If I haven’t worked for that person, or they haven’t learned of my skills “organically,” it’s difficult to sell myself because I feel like I’m selling myself.

There are constant complaints in the UCDC building about the D.C. networking culture. That it’s not authentic or genuine. That it’s preventing them from forming “real” relationships. That it’s just plain exhausting.

We also hear lots of “success stories.” One of my friends ended up receiving a job offer from striking up a conversation with a stranger. Another found a vital connection to a fellowship she wanted at a happy hour. When I ask people how they got their first jobs, about three out of four say they just met the right person at the right time.

Regardless, I am still uncomfortable with networking for the sake of networking. But at the same time, I wonder where the disdain comes from.

What is so wrong with wanting a better job? A job that probably not only has more benefits, but one that also can tap into your skills and effectively applies them toward accomplishing your goals.

One of my friends who recently moved to D.C. graduated Berkeley with an impressive resume in international development and finance. Not only does she have the knowledge, she has the dedication to work tirelessly toward international social equity. She’s currently working at a job that doesn’t utilize her knowledge of economics or international trade, but only cares if she can collate papers or not. Why shouldn’t she tap into every resource available, including that of strangers, in order to make sure her talents can be better applied toward improving the world?

Networking with strangers may still be uncomfortable for many people, but networking within your organization or with your coworkers shouldn’t be.

D.C. professionals are generally very supportive of young people’s career development. They understand where you’re coming from, and genuinely want to help you. For example, I am currently looking for a full-time job, and the firm I intern for has extended my internship until I find one so that there’s no gap in my resume. Many of my supervisors constantly keep an ear out for job opportunities.

The point is, when you work, intern, or volunteer for an organization, you become a part of the team. Your supervisors and coworkers all want you to succeed, and will not think twice about helping you do so. On a more practical note, their organization will always be on your resume, so they of course want it associated with other great companies.

So go get some business cards and head on out! (Just to emphasize: don’t go to D.C. without business cards.)

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View from the Speaker’s balcony (Matsui Washington Fellow Trinh Nguyen right), Washington, DC

I’m going to be in D.C. for at least the next few years, although I’m thankfully spending the winter back in California, where there is always fresh fruit and a lack of fusion food. (As much as I loved Chinese-style duck tacos, I miss just regular food.)

I have been apprehensive about the move to D.C. (and still am). Professionally, I know it’s the right decision. I want to work in federal policy, and there’s really no where else to do it. Personally, it’s a city that attracts idealists and hard workers, and it’s fun being around them. It’s also cool to see another side of the U.S. (I’ve actually developed an affinity toward the northern Midwestern states from meeting people from that area.)

It doesn’t hurt to do at least a summer in D.C. I’ve heard that a summer is a lot more fun for students and young professionals than it is in the fall and spring. But it’s also good to get out of California, and get another perspective on how government, policy, and people function.


Trinh Nguyen is a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Political Science. She is currently studying and interning at the Penn Hill consulting group as a Matsui Washington Fellow at the University of California Washington D.C. Center.

Decoding DC – What Life is Really Like in the Nation’s Capital

Posted by Matsui Washington Fellow Trinh Nguyen.

Berkeley students and grads at Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art. Matsui Fellow Trinh Nguyen second from right.

Berkeley students and grads at Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art. Matsui Fellow Trinh Nguyen second from right.

The start of the federal government shutdown of 2013 coincided with a spike in temperature. I know this for sure, because I celebrated surviving the DC summer humidity with a weekend of beautiful low- to mid-70’s temperatures reminiscent of Berkeley weather. And then the government closed down and the temperatures hiked up, hitting a too-bad-you’re-in-a-suit 90’s as I walked to work in flip flops.

Okay, I’m being a bit melodramatic, but the Washington, D.C. climate did change in more ways than one. To clarify, I will talk about the DC that exists in the downtown area, which is not home to most DC natives. It’s full of commuters from Virginia and Maryland, and loads of new, young professionals from around the U.S. and the world.

I arrived to Washington on August 25th, the first day of the UCDC program. I was a bit too excited about the program, and offered to start my internship the next day, the 26th. I heard DC was a polarizing town of A-type personalities, so I expected to see the severe partisanship and dog-eat-dog world immediately.

And well, I didn’t. I know this part of DC exists. The government shutdown proved it exists. But I really do think most people who go to DC for work prioritize getting stuff done, and getting it done well requires civility. Both Democrats and Republicans are in power in different ways, and progress requires cooperation.

I intern for a bipartisan lobbying and consulting firm specializing in education and workforce issues. The office is split between Democrats and Republicans. While there is friendly teasing over some of the more hot-button issues, my work environment is incredibly positive. Everyone respects each other, likes each other, and works well together. They produce really great things, and I’m lucky to be a part of it.

So after a couple weeks, I began telling my friends and family back home that DC isn’t as polarized as the media portrays it. People may have a partisan agenda, but they pursue it with decorum. The cases that show the extreme disarray and tension in government and politics are salient, but are few relative to the overall picture.

On the final days leading up to the shutdown, nearly everyone was sure it wouldn’t happen. There was no way the President would budge on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), they said, and the GOP knew it. Even if there was a shutdown, they said, it would last a maximum of two days. No one wanted a shutdown, and, for sure, no one wanted a long one.

The Capitol a few days before the shutdown. Courtesy of Matsui Fellow Trinh Nguyen.

The Capitol a few days before the shutdown. Courtesy of Matsui Fellow Trinh Nguyen.

Tuesday, October 1. I remember hearing some UCDC students toast the shutdown when the clock hit midnight. Furloughed interns for government agencies joked about free vacations. Furloughed federal employees joked about paid vacations. DC businesses started giving out free or discounted “shutdown food” as a business gimmick. The first few days of the shutdown were kind of fun. Everyone just “knew” Congress was going to figure it out and there would be no harm done for anyone outside of those select politicians.

Friday, October 4. People started getting uneasy. “Wait, they haven’t figured anything out yet?” “But they’re gonna figure something out this weekend right? They have to! Veterans can’t visit their war memorials!”

Monday, October 7. People started getting frustrated. “What do you mean nothing happened over the weekend?” “I have to get paid this week or else I can’t pay my bills!”

Tuesday, October 8. People started getting angry. “Congress isn’t even in negotiations for a compromise. They’re in negotiations for negotiations!!!”

Monday, October 14. … “I’ll vote my congressperson out of office if you vote out yours.”

I don’t work on the Hill, and I know few people on the Hill. So maybe both sides of the aisle really thought they were going to “win,” but from what I saw, most people saw the shutdown as a lose/lose for everyone. People were confused, they were tired, and they were more disillusioned with their elected leaders than they thought possible.

During the whole sixteen days of the shutdown, federal employees just wanted to go back to work. And when they finally walked back into their offices, they were faced with weeks of backlog. The IRS even postponed tax season.

Government research agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, couldn’t accept new cancer patients for clinical trials. One friend from New York worked at a non-profit that helped disadvantaged families get food stamps. One particular family would have gotten assistance even with the shutdown, but there was a glitch in the system that prevented them from receiving their benefits. Guess who was the only person able to fix it? Yep—a federal employee not at work.

Politics got even nastier, especially when the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) leaked ACA negotiation emails from the office of Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). It was a breach of trust that shocked everyone, including those who expected the worst from Congress.

I thought I was saved from the shutdown because I could still go to work. But work was slow. My firm had given me some awesome assignments, but they had to do with Congressional hearings and legislation. All of that was postponed. Lobbyists and political consultants hated the shutdown. How can a government relations firm do its job when the government isn’t open? Bills that should have been passed by the end of this year were tabled, and probably won’t be picked up again until 2014.

My fellow UCDC participants who interned on the Hill and in federal agencies felt like they were wasting their time. They changed their academic schedules in order to have an internship that they were legally barred from doing. Quarter students from other UCs got the worst end of the bargain. They arrived in late September. At this point, some of them have only been at their internships for a week and a half. Some of them only have six weeks (and the lucky ones have seven) to network and build professional relationships at their workplace. When UCDC ends, I would have gotten sixteen weeks.

Even little bits of regular life got harder. One of my furloughed friends decided to work on his UCDC research paper. Too bad the Library of Congress, website included, was shut down. Another friend said Berkeley experienced an earthquake, and he couldn’t even check the magnitude because the Department of the Interior website was down.

It’s October 25 now, and the government re-opened on October 17. Federal employees got calls the night of October 16 (or in the early morning of October 17) to come back to work. In the past seven business days, museums opened back up, research centers continued reporting on earthquakes, Congressional hearings are slowly being rescheduled, and DC is like how it was. That’s because when public servants are allowed to do their jobs, they do it well.

Well, most of them. Congress suspended the debt ceiling until February 7, 2014. That Friday is their new deadline for compromise. When you add in all their recesses, that doesn’t give them a lot of time to hash out their differences in the Capitol. A lot of already begrudged people on the Hill gained a lot more grudges over the 16 days of the shutdown.

The air in DC has changed once again. Literally. It’s brisk and refreshing; fall is here. In a couple of weeks, restoration will begin on the Capitol, and the dome will be covered in scaffolding for two years. It won’t be a pretty sight, but it makes for a pretty nice symbol of the repair Congress needs.