Going to Washington, DC changed my entire outlook on my future for the better.
Before I went to DC I was heading toward a future in law, hoping that after several years of groundwork I would finally be able to help people in the way that I’d dreamed of.
I wanted to go into public service or civil rights, to perhaps be a senator or a judge, to work from inside the government to help improve the nation.
But . . . I was not looking forward to law school. I kept telling myself that it was necessary in order to get where I wanted to go.
DC is the Place to Go for Changing the Country
I decided to participate in the Quarter in Washington Program for several reasons.
My parents had met and married in DC, and so my family had been back several times and after several visits, I, too, fell in love with the city. The program offered me the chance to travel back and live in this wonderful city while still continuing my education.
DC is also the place to go for changing the country. If you want to help people by becoming a politician or advocating for a cause, DC is the destination.
Interning at The Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis
Instead I came across the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis (OP&A). OP&A is an internal branch of the Smithsonian, the Institution that funds and runs the National Museums in DC, ranging from the Air and Space Museum to the National Museum of American History to the National Museum of Natural History, and many, many more.
OP&A conducts visitor research with the aim of improving existing exhibits, evaluating newly installed exhibits, or informing the design of exhibits yet to be created. It also conducts research regarding the various programs put on by the Smithsonian.
The Deep End on Day One
My first day at OP&A I hit the ground running.
I was asked to review the national guidelines for human subjects research (standard protocol for anyone doing this type of work), and then I was handed a stack of surveys and asked to write a final report on them. The surveys were from a youth science program where at the end students involved were asked what they liked most and least about the program.
Together with an audio recording of a group interview, I used this information to make my recommendations for the future of the program.
Much to my surprise it was my memo that was sent out to the people who ran the program. Never would I have expected that a measly intern would be informing the decisions of clients, but that was the way things were done at OP&A.
This was not the last time I was directly involved with clients, either.
Often I was brought to meetings where I was allowed to sit and observe but also ask my own questions and participate in conversations with the various curators and designers of these exhibits. On several occasions I was given tours of exhibits by the very people who created them!
Helping to Name the Dinosaur Hall
Of course it wasn’t all inside looks and backstage passes.
Some of the most difficult work I did at OP&A was administering general surveys. Picture flyering on Bruinwalk. If any of you have done this you will have felt my pain.
But even here it wasn’t all bad. One survey I was heavily involved in was interviewing visitors to inform the decision of the name for the new dinosaur hall.
As I’ve heard happens so often in marketing research, none of the names we recommended were ultimately chosen. Even so, I knew that I was contributing to an effort to name a hall that would be there for the next 50 years.
A Supervisor Who Cared
I also had the benefit of an amazing mentor.
Dr. Zahava Doering, my internship coordinator, made it her mission to make sure I was as involved as possible as an intern, while also getting the chance to see and explore the wonderful city I was in. She also ensured I had ample time and resources to work on my own research paper.
She even offered to put me up on a weekend trip to New York where she had a lovely brownstone in Chelsea.
Without Dr. Doering, I would have had a totally different experience that quarter.
New Skills, New Perspective, New Career Goal
At the end of 10 weeks I had learned so much. OP&A helped me not only strengthen my research and professional skills, but taught me that politics is not the only way to help people.
The work I did helped improve the way the Smithsonian educates citizens. The reason this fabulous resource is free is that scientist James Smithson believed in “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” and I was helping to bring that belief to fruition.
Today I hope to continue to help people in similar ways.
My dream is to work for the research branch of Walt Disney’s Imagineering, helping to improve the various theme parks around the world. (Disney is a personal obsession of mine.)
After DC, a Different Way to Get Where I Want to Go
My time in DC helped me realize that sometimes you can help people just by making their day a little brighter or helping them learn something new. I learned that I did not have to suffer through the banes of law school and politics–a perfect option for many people, but not my cup of tea.
The Quarter in Washington Program taught me that there can be more than one road to get to the place you want, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Katie Westbrook will graduate in 2015 with BAs in Political Science and Psychology. She is an officer on the Executive Board of UCLA’s Phi Sigma Pi Honors Fraternity. A member of UCLA’s Hooligan Theatre Company, in 2014 Katie appeared in the group’s production of “Hair.”