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There's a point to all this, I think

February 4, 2011   

On Wednesday, we trekked over to headquarters of the lobbying firm Williams and Jensen to meet and talk with George Baker and Frank Vlossak, Hamilton alums and attorneys at the firm who were willing and eager to share some pearls of wisdom with our wide-eyed group of Washington interns. The meeting was lively, entertaining and educational, and I think all 16 of us Hamilton students in attendance came out of that thinking that we knew a whole lot more about the lobbying industry and the ways in which Washington works than we did when we had first stepped into the room.

A lot of us came out of the meeting buoyed by the very idea of getting to meet and talk to men of their stature. For two hours or so, we listened to real people with real jobs doing real things talk about the real things they do. There stood before us two highly successful men who we could look to as examples that this semester we’re spending in Washington is something altogether different than an abstract class exercise. It's something we can tangibly build off in the same way they did to continue advancing in whatever direction it is we’re going.

The phrase ‘study abroad’ generally conjures images of adventurous American students armed with cameras exploring sidestreets in Paris or scarfing down a rice dish in Dar es Salaam as part of some form of self-imposed cultural boot camp. When your ‘abroad’ semester does not even consist of you going abroad, it begs the question, what exactly are you looking to get out of the experience?

I think in large part, what I and my companions on the program are looking to get out of the experience is precisely moments like last Wednesday night. An interactive discussion with accomplished professionals excelling in their field may not sound like anything different than a Hamilton seminar class, and it’s not as if any of us walked out of Williams and Jensen with our career prospects that much brighter, our future that much more concrete. The most we could hope for is that we absorbed some of the secrets of being successful through osmosis, just by being in tantalizing proximity to those who turned their lemons into lemonade.

But the fact remains that we were there, in the headquarters of a powerful Washington lobbying firm. We were there, in the room. And that, I think, makes all the difference.

When we talk to people older than us, it seems almost inevitable that someone will tell us that we are in the most exciting time in our life. A time of limitless opportunity, they say. Makes sense. But that optimistic look also hinges on the assumption that it’s all going to work out, and that out of this time of opportunity will come something concrete to build our lives from. But the flip side of that coin is that nagging fear that this period of what I guess you could call self-discovery will be less a crystallizing experience and more a confusing one. I am sure that I am not the only one who often asks myself the question, “What if I don’t make it?” What if the lightbulb doesn’t magically turn on one day, my college education neatly laying the rest of my life out there for me, career choice, lifestyle, city of residence all included in some sort of package deal.

Being in this city, commuting to work surrounded by men and women in their power suits and typing furiously into their BlackBerry on the Metro, has been something of a welcome reminder of the height of the stakes, the need to ‘make it.’ It’s a reminder of the fierce urgency of now, the need to win the battle to be somebody. It's a dress

rehearsal for the real world, safety nets like the spacious living quarters we’re afforded built-in, and the knowledge that after this foray into the “real” world, we’ll be able to retreat back into our collegiate bubble in a semester’s time.  There, we'll take solace in the fact that we can read Nietzsche or review Proust for another year to stave off the inevitability of the plunge off the deep end and into a world unhinged from college dining halls and finals week study groups.

And so I take meetings like the one at that lobbying firm, and I look at the internship that I am currently undertaking, and I say that I am building toward something. What, exactly? It’s too early to tell, but at the very least, this experience is getting me in the room. If I can consistently keep myself in the sorts of rooms where things are happening, real world decisions are being made, and ambition is being cultivated, then I think I might possibly be on my way to ‘making it.’

Thursday morning, as part of my internship I ventured up to Capitol Hill to attend a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing. It was my first time on the Hill (or as a Hamilton student might view it, the OTHER Hill), and I felt a jolt of energy and excitement even if in reality all I did for the two hours was listen and take notes. Being in the same room as person like Senator Al Franken (D, Saturday Night Live) is a concrete step of progress, right? Now, Al Franken has no idea we were ever in the same room, because he has no idea who I am. In fact, in the annals of history, there will never be any official recognition that I was ever even in the Hart Senate Office Building Room 216 to hear testimony on the Energy and Oil Market Outlook for the 112th Congress, save this obscure college online journal. One day, the hope is, that people like Franken WILL know that I’m in the room. That’s the point, right?