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Washington, District of Cornell

The Cornell in Washington program gives students an up-close look at government’s company town.


Named for the star that once guided escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, the Polaris Project is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to combating human trafficking. Its offices are located in one of the myriad townhouses in the vicinity of Dupont Circle, an elegant former residence with a fireplace in its marble foyer. But if the building retains a classical air, its contents are firmly twenty-first-century: its desks and tables are laden with laptops wielded by smartly clad young staffers, crammed elbow to elbow as they work to end modern-day slavery.

Dara Brown in front of 2148 O Street in DC

Aim high: With an already-impressive résumé of human rights work, Dara Brown ’13 has her sights set on Congress—and beyond.

Among them is Dara Brown ’13, who beat out some thirty applicants for one of three fellowships in Polaris’s policy department. She’s spending her fall semester on such projects as studying the effectiveness of “johns schools”—diversion programs for men convicted of soliciting prostitution. On a torrentially rainy morning in early October, Brown gives her supervisor an update on that work, then reports her progress on another assignment, researching the definition of involuntary servitude. “That’s been kind of tricky,” Brown tells her, “because I’m finding a lot of meanings for sex trafficking, and I didn’t think you wanted that.”

“If you look at the ways states draft their human trafficking laws, you have individual crimes such as involuntary servitude or debt bondage, and then the higher-level crime is human trafficking, which is forcing someone to do one of those acts,” says her boss, Polaris policy associate Britanny Vanderhoof. “So you have two types of laws. The human trafficking laws, which are what a lot of states have, are just ‘force, fraud, or coercion.’ They don’t define those other elements as separate crimes.”

Brown nods. “That’s what I’m finding. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t want that information as well.”

“No, you are doing perfectly,” Vanderhoof says. “Awesome.”

For Brown—stylishly clad in black leggings, patent leather flats, and a long beige cardigan over a diaphanous pink shirt—the Polaris gig represents another line on a burgeoning résumé. She’s a government major with two minors; co-president of Alternative Spring Break; vice president of one student group promoting education for girls in the developing world and co-chair of another that fights domestic sex trafficking; and a longtime volunteer for a Harlem nonprofit that offers education and mentoring for young victims of the commercial sex trade. After graduation, she plans to earn a JD and pursue a career in social justice or family law; ultimately, she’d like to serve in elective office—“at the Congressional level, or even higher up.”

Even higher? What might that be, pray tell?

“I’d love to be an adviser to the president,” she admits with a smile, “or take his position.”

David Silbey profile shot

CIW associate director David Silbey ’90.

Brown is in the right place. She’s spending fall semester in the Cornell in Washington (CIW) program, which combines academic work with internships that offer real-world experience in a variety of venues—think tanks, trade organizations, media outlets, NGOs, government agencies from the State Department to the NEA. “Our aim is to give them both an intellectual and a practical experience,” says David Silbey ’90, the program’s associate director and an adjunct associate professor of history. “In policy and politics, what you can do in Ithaca tends to be resolutely academic, and the challenge is largely intellectual. By coming down here, students can experience what they’re learning on a practical level. When you’re interning at a nonprofit that’s looking at human trafficking and you’re writing a paper on the subject, in addition to the scholarly research you’re seeing how policy actually gets made. When you’re sitting in the White House Office of Correspondence listening to people react to the violence in Libya, you’re seeing the nuts and bolts of policy. If you’re reading a book about the Reagan revolution in class, you can go to events where people mentioned in it are speaking.”

Housed in its own building—the Wolpe Center, located a few blocks off Dupont Circle—the program comprises some thirty to forty undergrads each semester. Except for a few Ithaca College students, CIW is limited to Cornellians during the academic year, though its summer program accepts students from any institution. “Washington is a fantastic city to live and study in,” says David Sadoff ’14, a history and government double major from suburban New York. “Just the opportunity to be near the Mall and the Capitol, to see these buildings, to walk and work in them, is very exciting. And all the museums and monuments are free; I can go any weekend and have a ball.”

A French speaker, Sadoff is interning in the European division of the Library of Congress; his duties have included creating online search aids for a collection of letters from Belgian schoolchildren thanking President Woodrow Wilson for providing food relief during World War I. “The Cornell in Washington building is centrally located; you can just walk out and experience something new,” he says. “Ithaca is a fantastic town, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. Even though Cornell puts on great programs and brings in speakers, in Washington it’s at a whole other level.”

Roselle Bajet walks in a plaza with a fountain

Roselle Bajet ’14, who landed an internship at the D.C. public defender’s office.

Soaking up the district’s cultural offerings is a central part of the Cornell in Washington experience. The program takes students on outings to such venues as baseball’s Nationals Park—last fall, they watched the home team clinch its division—and the Supreme Court, where they’ve met with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54. The Cornell Club of Washington, which uses the Wolpe Center for its meetings, hosts events like a mountain hike in Virginia and a paddle on the Potomac. (The club also gives stipends to two students each year, offsetting D.C.’s higher cost of living.) Last summer, Silbey says, students created a “bucket list” of must-dos ranging from visiting the steep Georgetown staircase made infamous in The Exorcist to sampling the wares of D.C.’s many cupcake bakeries. “My friends and I have this agenda where we plan to go to a different museum every weekend,” says Jon Yuan ’14, listing recent outings to the national museums devoted to Native Americans, art, American history, and air and space, as well as a trip to Eastern Market, Capitol Hill’s popular foodie destination.

Born in Montreal and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Yuan is a double major in government and in China and Asia-Pacific studies, known as CAPS. (The latter requires students to attend CIW and dictates their program of study, which includes Chinese language and a class on U.S.-China relations.) Yuan is juggling two internships: one in marketing at the American Foreign Service Association, the other in PR at the Voice of America. “As much as the Cornell administration would like to think of the University as being united, there are definitely factions like racial groups or Greeks,” Yuan observes. “One thing I’ve noticed here is that those lines of division are erased because we’re forced to interact with each other in such a small group. To my mind, it’s much easier to meet people because there are so few of us.”

Junior Roselle Bajet seconds that notion. “It’s definitely a more cohesive group because we do pretty much everything together, from studying to taking classes to recreational activities,” says Bajet, a government major from Jackson Heights, Queens. “When I first got here, it was daunting—starting work and not having my friends, which was a big bummer. But then you realize that no one does, so we might as well hang out.”

Bajet is working as an investigative intern in the D.C. public defender’s office—which has meant interviewing witnesses, filling out subpoenas, serving as a Spanish translator, visiting jails, and venturing out (in pairs) into dicey neighborhoods to take statements or gather evidence. Shortly after she started, she and her partner went to a housing project in search of surveillance footage for a case in which the complaining witness was shot in the leg and the accused claimed self-defense. “We needed to get the video, because the government was giving us a good plea offer, but they wouldn’t tell us why,” she recalls. “Trying to track it down was exhilarating. It was the day we had this monsoon, and I was running through the rain. Honestly, with the things I’ve been doing, sometimes I feel like I’m in a movie.”

The O Street building

House of representatives: The O Street building is located blocks from Dupont Circle.

With classmates interning in such a wide range of fields, CIW students benefit from cross-pollination—which can be invaluable for networking, job-hunting, and personal growth. “Not only do you get your own connections through your work and interests, you can piggyback off your friends who are in different fields,” says CAPS major Andrew Huang ’14, who’s interning at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; thanks to classmates, he has attended events like a walkathon against human trafficking and performances at the Kennedy Center. “The community here can’t be stressed enough. You’re living in a dorm with thirty to forty people who all have working relationships in D.C. and have different fields of academic interest. So a lot of the cool things I’ve been doing are things that other people are interested in.”

For Raj Kannappan ’13—a self-described “big politico”—CIW offered an ideal way to explore his interests in politics and international affairs while conducting a D.C. job hunt. A naturalized American born in India, Kannappan is a past president of Cornell’s College Republicans; as an intern at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, his duties have included writing reports and talking points for officials in advance of media interviews or congressional testimony. “My office is small; I’m the only intern, and they treat me like a regular employee,” says Kannappan, whose position required a security clearance. “It’s pretty cool. A lot of time I’m in meetings, which is typical of any federal employment.” Weighing his postgrad options, Kannappan is applying to conservative think tanks and to consulting and PR jobs in Asia, as well as taking the Foreign Service test. While he rues a recent missed opportunity to attend a meeting led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—he had a class—he did get to hear her speak; he was in the audience when she and President Obama addressed the State Department in the wake of the killing of U.S. diplomats in Libya. “I’ve worked in think tanks before, in public policy-type places,” he says, “but this is much faster, because things happen on very short notice.”

Open to students from all colleges and majors, Cornell in Washington is geared toward juniors and seniors, with a 3.0 average generally required for admission; sophomores and those with a slightly lower GPA are occasionally accepted after an interview. The O Street building, a handsome brick structure with a Cornell-red door, houses not only classrooms and offices but also student apartments, each with its own bathroom and recently renovated kitchen. “It’s a broader kind of learning than necessarily happens on campus,” notes labor economics professor Robert Hutchens, the program’s Ithaca-based director. “We’re trying to develop an atmosphere where students are growing intellectually and learning more about the world outside the University. We’re also trying to develop a community. Part of learning is talking to, arguing with, and relating to other people as you’re working through academic issues.”

Students sit and socialize in the center's lounge.

Policy wonks: Course work and leisure time meld in the center’s lounges.

CIW students must take one of two core courses: either Public Policy, which has a social science bent, or American Experience, which takes a historical perspective. For fall 2012, both were built around the presidential election. (Silbey, who teaches the two, had students predict the outcome a week before Election Day; both classes called Barack Obama as the victor, though by a slimmer margin than he ultimately won.) The core courses are cross-listed in various departments including government, American studies, and history; a student’s choice is often dictated by the requirements of his or her major. Both courses entail a comprehensively researched, forty- to fifty-page paper, which some students go on to use as the basis for an honors thesis. In addition to the core courses, students can choose from such electives as art history—with sessions conducted at the National Gallery—and a class on American interpretations of Shakespeare, which takes advantage of D.C. resources like the Folger Shakespeare Theater. “They are full Cornell courses, approved by departments who keep a close eye on them,” Silbey notes. “You don’t even have to apply to get the credits to count, as you do for study abroad. They go right on your transcript.”

Asked to name some of the program’s notable alumni, Hutchens lists Cornellians in a wide variety of jobs. They include hedge fund manager David Einhorn ’91; Michigan Congressman Hansen Clarke ’84; Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet ’93; journalist Amanda Ripley ’96; microfinance guru Alex Counts ’88; humorist Mark Katz ’86; Democratic strategist Ilir Zherka ’89; and nutrition policy expert Melissa Musiker ’03. “In terms of actually obtaining a job, my CIW internship experience was maybe the most valuable line on my résumé,” says Olivia Healy ’12, who interned at one think tank (the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) and now works for another (the Urban Institute). “It demonstrated that I had excelled in this field, that I knew what I was getting into, and that I had base-level competency in those skill sets. Even on the job now, it comes up. ‘Oh, you interned at the Center on Budget, you must know this or that researcher.’ A lot of the specific things I did there I’ve been able to translate into my current work.”

Healy notes that for many students, CIW offers the rare chance to do an unpaid internship without a worrisome financial burden. “Every summer, Cornell students are faced with the question of, ‘Do I intern, do I work, do I study?’ ” she says. “Not everyone can afford to do an unpaid internship—but they give you some of the best learning experiences and résumé building. CIW is a unique opportunity to do that, because you have the same financial commitment as other semesters.” And money aside, there are precious few plum internships within commuting distance of East Hill. “It’s one of those things that, as much as you love Cornell, you can’t get the same experience there,” Yuan says. “You can’t really intern while going to school because of the lack of opportunities around Ithaca.”

Anyone familiar with life inside the Beltway knows that much of the heavy lifting is done by young staffers and even interns—which is why CIW students often find themselves doing demanding, substantive work. That can give them a rare ringside seat to the governmental circus. Silbey recalls one State Department intern who, working on the Middle East desk in spring 2011, got to observe a high-level discussion on potential U.S. intervention in Libya. “One day the Secretary comes in and they’re going to have a big joint meeting about this,” Silbey recalls. “The heads-of-desk are at the table with the Secretary and each of them has a retinue—and sometimes that’s defined by how many people you have, so the interns get pulled in. Now, it was a big meeting, and he said he was pressed against the wall as hard as he could so nobody would notice him—but he was in the room. I think that gets at what we’re trying to do here.”

Governance, in other words, can seem theoretical; CIW shows students that policy is made by human beings who live in the real world. For Healy, that lesson was driven home during a threatened government shutdown in spring 2011. “It was a totally different experience to be in a city that was going to be affected and where the decisions were being made,” she recalls. “It made it all the more real. There was the Metro that needed funding for me to get to work; there was my weekend activity going to a museum that might not open. At Cornell, you’re reading about what’s going on in the country, but you’re insulated from it. Spending a semester in Washington, you see the direct lines between what you’re studying and what’s happening.”

Students work together in one of the apartments

Course work and leisure time meld in the center’s apartments.

One Thursday afternoon in early October, during a meeting of the American Experience class, the notion that D.C. is a company town whose business is government comes blaring to life. When sirens suddenly roar through the neighborhood, Silbey points out that the Wolpe Center is near one of Vice President Joe Biden’s regular motorcade routes. “The historian in me is always fascinated by how, here, you can watch the ordinary life of what you’re studying,” Silbey notes later. “Joe Biden has to get from Foggy Bottom to his house—so, like every guy, he gets in his car. Well, not quite like every guy; he has the Secret Service escort him at high speeds.”

When the sirens fade (it turns out to be an ambulance, not a head of state) the conversation returns to how previous electorates have viewed the economy—and how they are apt to rate the performance of a sitting president. “The argument in macro-quality research is that you don’t have to be an economist to know the economy’s doing badly; we have shortcuts,” says Desmond Jagmohan, MA ’11, a PhD candidate in government serving as a CIW tutor. “If you smoke, one of the obvious ways to know if the economy’s doing badly is if you look down and your cigarette is smoked all the way down to the butt; that’s a heuristic for how well things are doing. So voters experience the well-being of the economy very clearly.” Silbey takes the argument one step further, garnering laughs. “And you know you’re in a depression,” he says, “when you reach down and smoke the rest of a cigarette you find on the ground.”

Silbey taps some keys on his laptop, and maps depicting past electoral college results appear on the classroom’s flat-screen TV. He describes the stark contrast between 1976—when Jimmy Carter won the presidency—and 1980, when the incumbent was roundly trounced by Ronald Reagan. That year, Carter won only six states and the District of Columbia; he lost all of the South except his home state of Georgia. The map (oddly enough) shows Carter’s wins in red, leaving him a handful of rosy islands amid a sea of Reagan blue. “It’s almost like the water’s coming up to his neck, and he’s holding Georgia over his head,” Silbey remarks. “People just didn’t like Carter. Fairly or not, that map is, ‘Jimmy Carter, go home to your peanut farm.’ ” Then development sociology major Greg Haffmans ’15 reads aloud from a book on the Reagan era; the passage details how Carter’s popularity plummeted during the energy crisis, when he prescribed the bitter pill of lower oil consumption, higher prices, and tax hikes. “He lowered the speed limit so it was fifty-five everywhere,” Haffmans says. “Telling people they have to use less and pay more—it’s not a popular message. And Reagan’s like, ‘You know what: Everybody just go eighty miles an hour.’ ”

After viewing the maps from 1984 (Reagan beats Mondale) and 1988 (Bush beats Dukakis), the conversation turns to the current polarization of American politics. “All the data says that Americans have become more partisan,” Jagmohan observes. “People always complain, ‘Congress members aren’t doing their jobs. They just fight, they don’t compromise.’ But the reality is that if you say you’re going to compromise, you’re not going to get votes. Our Congress actually reflects our preferences. It’s kind of contradictory, right? We’re unwilling to compromise with the other side—they’re fascists on the right and socialists on the left. Both sides are guilty. But we see Congress members as somehow shirking their responsibility, when in many ways they’re accurately reflecting their constituencies.”

Silbey chimes in with a laugh. “Several Congresspeople,” he says, “will now rush in and shake your hand.” Then he asks if the students want to hear “the most bizarre little trivia thing that backs up that point.” Naturally, they do; Silbey launches into an anecdote that reinforces the notion that politicians are people too.

“When Clinton raised taxes, it got through the House with a 218-to-217 vote,” he tells the class. “The last vote was a freshman Congresswoman from Pennsylvania. She didn’t want to vote for it, because she was going to get killed in her district. The Democratic leadership had about seven people they didn’t want to have to vote for this, and it finally fell to her. So she marches down the aisle to vote, and a Republican Representative starts singing, ‘Nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey-hey, goodbye.’ She loses re-election, goes back to Pennsylvania, goes into business, raises a family. Her son comes down to D.C. to work as a legislative assistant and meets, of all people, Chelsea Clinton—and marries her. So,” Silbey concludes with a smile, “the family got a little more out of that vote than they might have otherwise.”

Photographs by Sam Kittner