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Opinion: My summer internship in Washington, DC helped me gain a new sense of autonomy

The Washington Monument is pictured. The UCDC program fostered personal and professional development, writes Michelle Lin. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Michelle Lin

Jan. 9, 2024 10:47 p.m.

Many students experience independence for the first time in college. I found this newfound independence when I went to live in Washington, D.C., this summer to intern at a local nonprofit organization.

I grew up on the West Coast, living mostly in the California Bay Area with a few years spent in New Mexico. The only two times I left home were to visit family in Asia.

Despite UCLA being a six-and-a-half-hour car ride away from home, I always felt a sense of security with its clubs, events, meal plans and dorms. I could always call my family at home, and my parents would visit on long weekends.

Overall, UCLA was a welcoming academic and social environment. However, in addition to academics, one of my goals in college was to develop my professional skills and be independent. As a student who started college during the pandemic, many of my experiences and internships were online, and I knew I wanted to develop my professional skills in an in-person setting.

I decided to pursue the UC Quarter in Washington program, also known as UCDC, which required me to apply for internships and be interviewed by different organizations. Unlike the academic year program, which has class requirements, the summer program allows students to focus solely on their internships.

One of the most daunting aspects of the UCDC program was finding an internship by a specific deadline. While I joined in January, internships for the summer filled up quickly, and I felt worried that I would not be able to find one in time. I received valuable support from the program on resumes and cover letters, but I was not adequately prepared for interviews.

I had never applied to a professional internship in the past, so experiencing the internship search alone was difficult. I was unaware of any other UCLA students who were also participating in the program and wished there was a stronger community established before we began.

While the process of securing an internship was challenging, and I did not know what to expect, the experience pushed me far outside my comfort zone and showed me what I could be capable of on my own.

Washington, D.C. seemed like a great place to cultivate a professional experience, in contrast to study abroad, where the emphasis may have been more on cultural enrichment. I saw D.C. as a place of political and professional development, where something new was always happening.

D.C. was different from what I expected, sparking a culture shock as I embarked on my first time on the East Coast. From the humid summer climate and public transportation system to the beautiful historic homes, it was a drastically different environment than suburban California.

Traveling outside California and being able to focus on my professional growth was one of the most rewarding experiences of my college experience thus far. I found the time I spent alone exploring the city or working on projects to be the most valuable in cultivating new personal and professional skills.

Moreover, I was given the opportunity to work in an office environment at a nonprofit organization that raised awareness of whistleblowers regarding their rights and legislation. For the first time, I was able to apply the skills I learned at UCLA in a professional setting.

The first few days of my internship were spent figuring out how I could transfer the skills I was already equipped with. As an English and history student, I always recognized the importance of having strong writing skills. However, the internship showed me how my writing could be used to address critical issues.

Before participating in this internship, I understood whistleblowers to be individuals who alerted the government or media about corporate wrongdoings. Nevertheless, I became educated on how broad the scope of whistleblowing was, and how powerful it could be in preventing white-collar crimes.

Many of the independent projects I had were based on reading whistleblower pamphlets, books and events, and writing about them in a way that could be easily accessible to the public to be released to the press and in newsletters.

I had the privilege of working on a project compiling the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports on whistleblower protections in all its member nations. Working with other interns, we were able to show that despite these nations agreeing to prevent corruption, very few of them have adequate whistleblower protections.

The accumulation of all these experiences helped me realize the far lengths I could achieve with my skills in the work environment, giving me stronger confidence in my own writing that expanded to other parts of my UCDC experience.

While the main focus of my stay in D.C. was the internship, exploring the city on my own was a priority for me as well. I grew confident in going to new places independently.

The accessible public transportation of D.C. facilitated my travels and allowed me to explore the D.C., Maryland and Virginia areas. Living in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where cars are the preferred mode of transportation, I never understood how useful and environmentally friendly public transportation was. The buses and Metro were easily navigated through apps such as Google and Apple Maps.

With this easily accessible transportation, I was able to tour the range of museums D.C. had to offer, and could explore cities such as the historic Alexandria, Virginia, and Silver Spring in Maryland. On my own, I was free to walk around historical museums, yarn shops and libraries, prioritizing my interests. The ability to choose what I wanted to do on my own was a freeing experience, eliminating fears I once had of being in public alone.

Having the autonomy to wander around the area on my own enlightened me that there was so much to see, even within the United States. Through my summer experience in D.C., I was able to make the transition from an academic to a professional setting and develop an ability to adapt to new environments.

Though I came to D.C. with the intention of learning about a professional work environment, I unexpectedly gained much more from the experience, discovering that placing oneself in unfamiliar situations and environments cultivates an irreplaceable sense of resilience.

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Michelle Lin
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