Powell Fellows Take On Washington, D.C.!

by Elizabeth Walle, Residence Coordinator, Powell School's Semester in Washington Program This May, the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service launched the Colin L. Powell School Semester in Washington, where 11 CCNY students lived and worked over the summer in our nation's capital. As the Residence Coordinator, I was thrilled to have the chance to introduce these young men and women to my hometown.

Clockwise, from left: Fellows Muhammad Saleh, Muhammed Alam,  Tahsin Chowdhury, Andrea Leon, Stephanie Guzman

As an extension of the NYC-based Colin Powell Center, the students were ambassadors in a new land. This unique program provided housing, special guest lectures, and a range of social and cultural events for City College of New York (CCNY) students participating in full-time internships in Washington, D.C. These students spent the summer working in some of the most challenging positions with some of the most programmatically progressive and interesting offices in the D.C.-metro area.

As their adviser, I was both excited to experience life in D.C.’s historic Capitol Hill district and eager to get an insider’s perspective on the Washington world of advocacy and policy by way of these ambitious and dedicated young public servants. Our students had come to D.C. with internship opportunities as diverse as their interests:

  • Oluwadamisi Atanda, a senior and a Community Engagement fellow, worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs supporting their efforts to promote the President’s priorities in Congress.
  • Mohammed Alam and Depak Borhara, both former recipients of the Community Engagement fellowship, worked for the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan institute committed to addressing 21st-century challenges such as energy, education, economic growth, and healthcare.
  • Paola Martinez and Samuel Innocent—currently fellows in the Colin Powell Fellowship program—spent their summer advocating for the rights of the disabled and building bridges between the veterans' community and the communities supporting people with disabilities.

This is just a small sample of the crucial and meaningful work in which our students were actively involved over the past few months.

Burgeoning Friendships and Cultural Connections

Our cohort of eleven moved into a townhouse provided by our gracious hosts, Washington Intern Student Housing (WISH).  Some fellows were already acquainted and some were meeting for the first time. But when 12 people live in one house, you get to know one another pretty quickly, and just a few weeks into the summer our living room had turned into a forum for the summer’s news, such as the DOMA decision, the Trayvon Martin case, and the ongoing conflict in Egypt.

Of course, it wasn’t all C-SPAN and thoughtful political discourse. Superbly situated as we were—a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court and with the dome of the Capitol building looming one block away—students took full advantage of the city’s cultural offerings. When students weren’t at their internships, studying for the LSATs, or attending a workshop sponsored by their office, they were attending the Fourth of July festivities on the National Mall, visiting the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia, or popping into the Library of Congress—just across the street from our house. Our group was also somewhat of a regular fixture at D.C.’s legendary underground jazz club, Bohemian Caverns, and we enjoyed at least one evening of D.C.’s summer jazz series in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. The students reminded me frequently that they are New Yorkers first and foremost, but they allowed themselves to be won over by Washington, at least for the summer.

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Getting Our Hands Dirty

Through our partnership with the District Department of the Environment and their “Sustainable D.C.” program (aimed at making the district the greenest and most livable city in the U.S. within 20 years), we rounded up our time in Washington working to make the city a bit greener and cleaner, with a day of service led by the Alice Ferguson Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to advocate for the preservation of the Potomac River watershed and preserve its heritage among residents of the greater D.C. area.

After a summer of planning programs and theorizing solutions, our students got a chance to take part in the groundwork of a city-wide initiative, and we spent an afternoon collecting refuse and engaging the public to drive home the impact of each individual’s actions on the quality of their city’s water supply.

By the summer’s end, the house had become a real—if necessarily ephemeral—community. The students of the Colin L. Powell School Semester in Washington are now headed in many different directions, and will probably be scattered around the country and the world within a few years. However I have no doubt that they’ll carry the shared experience of their summer in D.C. with them, and I predict that they will make good use of the personal and professional connections they formed, not only with Washingtonians, but certainly among themselves.