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Notes from Abroad

Notes from Abroad

By David McCabe

Last semester, I ran into a professor in the political science department while I was waiting to get the form signed that would allow me to get credit for courses Im taking off-campus this semester. He saw the form, and asked me where I was going.

I told him: Washington, D.C.

He replied with something between disdain and pity. How could I waste my off-campus experience, and my parents money, on the 25th-largest city in America?

So lets make sure something is clear: I am not abroad. I do not tell people Im abroad (I tell them Im off-campus). I fully recognize that in many ways Ive taken the easy route.

Theres no need for me to learn a new language, eat anything that challenges my American palette, or God forbid be forced to challenge any of the assumptions that I make because Ive lived stateside my entire life.

But my experience in D.C. so far has gone a long way to breaking up the monotony of Kenyon life, and, I hope, taught me about my home country in a way I havent been exposed to before. My program, administered through American University, is all about how policy, often undertaken at the federal level, can directly affect the way communities form and the way their members live.

Consider the way the federal government controls housing in lower-income communities. A few weeks ago, we studied the Hope VI program, which was a federal initiative to replace troubled housing projects (places like Cabrini-Green in Chicago, for example) with mixed-income communities.

The way this policy was written, though, made it difficult for past residents to move back in disrupting the communities that formed around the projects and denying housing to vulnerable populations. While its possible to learn about the impact of a policy like Hope VI just by reading about it, I think it has been undeniably helpful for me and my classmates to walk around Ward 8 of the District, looking at Hope VI developments and public housing that has been maintained through other routes. Not only does it allow us to draw the line between the policy-as-written and the policy-as-lived, but these trips are also an essential reminder that decisions on Capitol Hill have real effects on people.

Theres also an internship component to my program. Im working two days a week for a public policy consulting firm that works on behalf of a number of social-justice causes. Its been a great view into the political process, one that has proved a worthwhile supplement to my political science studies at Kenyon.

Theres also something to be said for spending some time in a city as vibrant as Washington while youre studying off-campus. While the District isnt home to one of Americas great opera companies and doesnt have the food scene of my native New York, it does provide immense access to some of Americas most influential people. In the last month, Ive been at events with U.S. senators and seen Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

So yes, its true that by spending my spring semester here, Im not broadening my horizons much in a traditional sense.

But in staying in the United States for my off-campus study experience, Ive been able to get a deeper sense of the political process.

Its an experience that I think will serve me well in my senior year at Kenyon, and potentially as I make my post-graduate decisions as well. And if the only price for that is a few scoffs from my professors, then thats fine by me.

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