By Nirvana Gisle Felix, Summer 2014 FirstGEN Fellow, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Written August 2014, Posted December 2014.
I was hesitant about interning in Washington, DC for two major reasons: 1) I absolutely hate planes and 2) I have never been to DC before and I was not sure how the experience would play out. Despite these feelings I found myself strapped tightly to a chair on a plane to the nation’s capital.
As a native Californian, adjusting to the DC culture was a bit difficult at first. The humid weather completely threw me off. The people on the Metro were less than friendly as they pushed past me to get to their destination. Every event was essentially an opportunity to network. Worst of all good Mexican or Asian food was virtually non-existent. I called my mom and friends multiple times a week to tell them how much I missed home.
I even started a countdown to when I would finally return to sunny California. I felt completely out of place and struggled to find my niche. It was not until after the first couple of weeks in this program that I realized I had to be proactive and make my experience in DC how I wanted it to be.
As part of the fellowship, every intern is required to have informational interviews with persons of their choice. As someone who is actively involved in her Filipino community, I really wanted to find Filipinos in the public sector and talk to them more about their experiences and what advice they had for me as an aspiring leader. I had the amazing opportunity to meet with people like Jason Tengco, and this really helped to shape my experience positively.
Initially I had a negative perception of our federal government as an institution run by white men who did not know that I existed or cared about the issues my communities face. Having the opportunity to see other people who looked like me organizing to address issues that are currently affecting Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders was truly amazing and got me extremely excited to return home to share this knowledge.
From here, my experience with FirstGEN and the Lawyers’ Committee just went uphill. I was able to attend events like Dolores Huerta’s 89th birthday party (Dolores is one of the co-founders of the United Farm Workers Movement and is a huge immigrant and women’s rights activist), was present at the Senate Judiciary Hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act, attended the extravagant Lawyers’ Committee’s Higginbotham Dinner in New York City, participated in the AAPI Youth Forum at the White House where we talked about issues affecting our communities in sectors like education, mental health, and immigration. We even paid a visit to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In addition to all of these experiences I also had the opportunity to explore the area, and do all the “touristy” things like visit the National Mall, tour the museums, and attend a couple of Jazz in the Garden events. I attended a really amazing poetry event at Busboys and Poets, and even attended the DC Pride Festival with my fellow FirstGENNER, Juan.
Throughout the entire ten weeks that I have been in DC, I have definitely talked a lot about how great California is. However, there is definitely something special about Washington, DC; something that sets it apart from other places. Though DC is a place I cannot imagine myself working in in the future, it is undoubtedly a place of opportunity for those who care about shaping policy and advocating for social justice. I have met amazing people who genuinely care about making the world a better, more fair and just place, people who have also encountered a lot of obstacles in their lives but did not let that stop them from pursuing their present-day careers. It is wonderful being surrounded by all of this positive energy, as well as truly inspiring to know people who work so diligently day in and day out to make progressive change.
As someone who comes from a low-income household and who never imagined going to college, I never in a million years considered that I would have the opportunity to travel to DC and intern for an amazing organization like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The FirstGEN Fellowship has definitely been one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me. On top of being offered this amazing opportunity to work in DC for the summer I also made great relationships with other interns and organizers. I truly created life-long friendships with the other fellows, Karla, Juan and Genesis. It has been difficult navigating school, my community, and the world knowing that as a first generation college student, I am constantly at a disadvantage. But being part of this internship and getting all the support from my supervisors, fellow interns and friends has been empowering.