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Wet, Hot American Summer

The rise and fall and resurrection of a college intern in Washington, D.C.

By 8.27.04

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When I got the phone call saying that I was accepted into the National Journalism Center's internship program for the summer, I bounded around my room, waving and pumping my fists, beating down some invisible opponent. The internship anxiety of the last few months demanded that I shake a load off.

Let me explain: As a Canadian studying in the States -- accustomed to taking paying summer jobs back home -- I found the internship talk that embroiled the Cornell campus last year both baffling and compelling. An article in the campus newspaper quoted a figure in the high eighties of students at the University of Pennsylvania who were already committed to doing internships the following summer. The article went on to suggest that your college summers foretold your career fate; I needed in. Starting in November, I scoured the Internet, attended career service events, purchased the Princeton Review's Internship Bible and even agreed to a job over winter break to finance my future placement.

By February, I had secured a tentative offer from the Woodrow Wilson Press Center in Washington, D.C for a part-time internship. By late April that had fallen through and I was cursing myself for not circulating my résumé widely enough. This led me to the National Journalism Center. Although listed in the Princeton Review's Internship Bible, the tired design of the website and the late deadline of April 30 screamed hoax or ruse. But I had nothing to lose, so I applied.

Short of three weeks before the program's start, I received word, and Craig's List and Sublet.com became my new best friends. Because my sister would be joining me two weeks in, my search was that much harder. Dozens of long distance phone calls, emails, and one $30 membership to a housing forum that never panned out later, we agreed to a two-room in a home advertised as close to Capitol Hill for $1,600 a month.

On the flight to D.C., I felt that, after the exhaustive process, I must be on the way to the Promised Land of the Right Career Track. But then moments after I disembarked from the plane the torrid, muggy weather, with the big cicadas ever in my midst, having carefully coordinating their seventeenth year stay to coincide with my own, triggered a splitting migraine.

THE DOUBLE IN THE Capitol Hill area turned out to be a house in a barred community around Howard University where I, my sister and my housemates served as the only handful of white people. Safety was a concern when my sister arrived, as well as convenience, with the closest grocery store and subway station 20 minutes away. Unsurprisingly, we opted to suck it up, take the financial hit, and move to Georgetown the following month.

The internship was also targeted at easy marks. Headed by executive director Ken Grubbs Jr., who would be axed only half-way through the program for criticizing the great Reverend Moon in a story for the Wall Street Journal, only a quarter of the expected participants actually showed up to the orientation. The program would function into two parts: a weekly clinic on the nuts and bolts of journalism with the rest of the week devoted to on-the-job experience at an outside media outlet.

Those much-touted media partners rarely came through and nearly half of the interns were without media assignments after the first week. While most interns toured the city or sat at home, waiting and hoping their dream assignments would arrive, I felt my parents' and my hard-earned money slipping through my fingers. I groused a lot until the Center finally posted me to the Common Denominator, a small weekly Washington independent.

It felt more like the lowest common denominator, maintained by a staff of one, dial up Internet which allowed one user at a time, and a layout that harked back to the '70s. So I demanded reassignment. Immediately they posted me as personal assistant to syndicated columnist Mona Charen, who needed someone to do some research for her for a forthcoming book.

Because I had no Internet access at my place, the research was slow in coming, but when I arrived to Insight magazine at the Washington Times that Friday I used my resourcefulness to dump the assignment on the researchers at the Times, who appeared unoccupied and eager to help.

INSIGHT MAGAZINE, MY HOME for the next two months, proffered a shuttle to fetch me from Union Station and managed to raise my spirits. But having recently gone from a print to an online magazine, following a funding withdrawal by the ubiquitous Reverend Moon, Insight turned out to be a depressing place of abandoned cubicles, inhabited by a skeletal crew of an editor, deputy editor, and a copy editor who were doing all they could do just to keep the thing going.

The staffers were in no position to provide direction and support for a young journalist; they had their own troubles of keeping their heads above water. So the assignment became a free for all for any vulture/intern to come and go as they pleased, to scavenge at the remains of books from the past glory days of a magazine and imagine what was. My editor instructed me on how to appreciate the trashy articles of the New York Post and told me to never back down.

The upshot was, I discovered a new brand of independence, with a captain and crew that threw me out in the middle of the ocean and said swim. And I did. I procured a Senate and House of Representative Press Pass, my ticket to the city, as well as a membership to the National Press Club, and I roamed the town, milking my press credentials for all they were worth: going to free theater shows, interviewing people at the Reagan procession, entertaining the likes of the New Republic's editor Peter Beinart, reading much, listening well, and writing a few articles.

Standing outside the Dupont Circle Metro one rush hour afternoon, I sat back and observed as a sea of noisy youthful chatter and excitement, done up in ties, jackets, the occasional briefcase, short skirts, blouses and excessive make-up, filled the boulevard, and I realized something.

I realized the article in the campus paper was wildly off the mark. We were but free labor guinea pigs who knew nothing. We came to big foreign cities to boost and buff up our résumés, only to boost the tourist trade and American economy, because if we weren't happy serving that coffee, we would spend money, more money than our paltry college purses could afford, as an "investment in the future." We would be gullible and get ripped off by landlords and console ourselves by calling it a learning experience.

But damn it, it was an experience!

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