A ride through Washington, D.C., with Lisa Curtis '10

Editor’s note: Whitman students who want to learn about the U.S. government, foreign policy or community organizing may apply through Study Abroad to attend the American University Washington Semester Program, based on a thematic seminar with an internship component. Lisa Curtis ’10, a politics-environmental studies major from Alameda, Calif., was midway through the program when she wrote this column.

Lisa Curtis

When I ride down country roads through the wheat fields with the rest of the Whitman cycling team, the most frequently heard exclamation is not “car up,” it’s “tractor ahead.”

I often think longingly of those endless miles of empty road while I’m weaving my bike through traffic here in Washington, D.C. But then I ride past the White House, and I realize that D.C. is a pretty cool place, too.

“Most of my friends decided to spend this semester in a foreign country. Sometimes I feel like I did, too…”

A lot more has changed than just the scenery since I decided to spend a semester of my junior year in the urban studies program at American University. Most of my friends decided to spend this semester in a foreign country. Sometimes I feel like I did, too; this other Washington is a world apart from Walla Walla.

For one thing, my wardrobe has changed. Instead of riding a road bike with fancy clip-in shoes and spandex, I ride a red beach cruiser in a suit and matching red heels. No longer do I travel leisurely through endless miles of wheat fields with nothing holding me back but the lingering thought of the homework I should be doing. Now I frantically push my heels into the pedals, urging my little red bike to go faster so that I can get to work on time.

It’s not such a bad commute. I begin my journey at the top of Capitol Hill in a tiny apartment that I share with five other politics majors. Then I ride my bike down the National Mall, soaring past smartly dressed congressional staff and confused-looking tourists.

I slow my bike as I pass the Newseum. At the entrance of this new museum dedicated to the news are the front pages from major papers from across the world. Sometimes I stop altogether if I find an especially interesting headline. Like most people in D.C., I am obsessed with the news. Discussions on current events and political debates don’t just occur in the classroom here; in fact, they occur most often at parties or at the five o’clock happy hours that D.C. is so famous for.

However, I never pause at the Newseum for too long. Interning at the United Nations Environment Programme is not a job I want to be late for. It’s a dream come true to work alongside people from all over the world who are doing more than their share to make this world a better place.

I play a small part in all of this. My task is to work on UNEP’s new climate change education campaign for North America, called “Kick the Carbon Habit.” The campaign is spearheaded by 20 regional coordinators from around the United States and Canada who will lead educational events in their communities, specifically targeting elementary and middle-school audiences. I was lucky to be chosen as the regional coordinator for Washington, Oregon and Alaska, but since I’m in D.C. for the semester, I’m helping to coordinate all of the logistics for a conference in Chicago to launch the campaign. It’s a lot of work, but the sense of excitement that I get from thinking about what this campaign can accomplish keeps me working hard.

At the end of the day, I leave the office and head down the elevator. Before I leave the building, I change out of my suit and put on jeans and a bright red button-up shirt that says “Nando’s.” Nando’s is a South African/Portuguese restaurant where I work as a hostess.

This is a wardrobe change with a specific purpose. I change clothes before I arrive at the restaurant so that the people I work with don’t see me in a suit. Most of the Nando’s employees are the same age as me, but instead of attending college, they are busy attending to the needs of their kids. Like me, most of them have a second job, but most of their jobs don’t involve sitting in front of a computer.

One out of five people in D.C. lives at or below the poverty line, making our nation’s capital the jurisdiction with the third-highest rate of poverty in the nation. It’s a statistic I think about a lot as I ride my bike past all of the people in suits on their way to the Capitol.

I’ve learned a lot of statistics recently through the International Environment and Development seminar that I attend the three days a week when I’m not at my internship. I’ve learned that the United States spends more money on the military than the rest of the world combined but less of our budget on foreign assistance than any other developed country.

Recently in class, my professor has emphasized the impact of the financial crisis on developing countries. Not only will global foreign assistance money decrease, so will tourism, prices of nonessential commodities (such as roses) and credit to finance development projects. As my professor summed up in an extremely depressing lecture, “We can expect to see an increase of crime, political conflict and starvation in the developing world in the coming months.”

Sometimes, when I’m living on the happiest college campus in the country, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has such a good life. In D.C. I am not experiencing life in an inner-city ghetto or a poverty-stricken developing country, but I am coming into contact with the people who shape the policy that either ignores or helps to alleviate poverty. It’s difficult for me to respond to the question of why I am interested in development. I can’t imagine not being interested in helping those less fortunate.

Someday, hopefully, I’ll be back in D.C., but instead of riding my bike past the Capitol, I’ll be walking in the door.