By Lina Han, 2017-2018 Killam Fellow from University of Ottawa to American University
My Uber driver picked me up from the airport and was heading toward my new home in Washington D.C. when my Uber Pool buddy asked me the typical question, “What do you do?”
As my flight-addled brain managed to respond that I’d be an intern at the Canadian Embassy that fall, the reality set in: I would be living in another country for four months – not as a student or a tourist, but as an employee and as a representative of my beloved country of Canada.
I had landed the opportunity to work at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the Organization of American States (PRMOAS), co-located within the Embassy. Every day in DC was surreal, from seeing famous and familiar sights from political dramas like Homeland and House of Cards on my way to work, to walking through the halls of the Embassy and the OAS. I strived to strike a balance between integrating into the brisk-walking, suit-donning DC local lifestyle and casually soaking in the beautiful surroundings that would become my home until the coming winter.
At the Embassy, I worked with an incredible group of people. Once, we hosted a Latin-American themed fiesta, and we kept some drinks ice-cold by storing them in a salad bar loaded with ice. As the event was winding down and clean-up began, we realized a fatal mistake on our part –the bottom layer of the ice in the salad bar had melted and stuck together, forming a thick sheet of ice. Arming ourselves with cake servers, metal spoons and ladles – really, whatever we could get our hands on – we attacked the ice wall. The undertaking involved seven of us and needless to say, was the ultimate team-bonding experience. The Deputy Head of Mission (DHOM) was probably the one most invested in this effort, and that to me was the perfect embodiment of our leadership’s humility and tenacity.
This sense of camaraderie was formed over the months. If someone had filmed all the looks we shot each other throughout the OAS Permanent Council (PC) meetings, it would pass for a reiteration of the infamous “faces of Jim Halpert”. I also got a chance to get to know the Ambassadors to the OAS on a personal level, to the point where I bonded with previous and current interns over our respective lists of favourite Ambassadors and seeing if they matched up – a shout-out to Wendy and Renuka!
Near the end of my internship program, the DHOM invited everyone to his house for an early Holiday party; this also happened to be my farewell dinner with PRMOAS. As they gathered around me to express their appreciation and give me a gift (a lovely DC photo book with each of their messages and wishes), I realized how quickly these past four months had gone by.
I felt as if I was packing up to leave just as I had adjusted to the day-to-day life in DC. I was starting to get comfortable with networking; I learned how to foster genuine mentor-mentee relationships, and I learned how to live in the moment, by taking advantage of life in a vibrant hub of bustling activity for policy enthusiasts and networking aficionados. Ever since news of my internship acceptance, I was busy planning my next five years in an exhilarated rush, imagining all the doors that this Embassy experience would open for me, and what additional doors those opportunities would open. The pursuit of opportunity and achievement was endless, and it consumed so much of my attention while living in DC that it stifled my ability to fully take advantage of the city’s countless think tank events, networking receptions, panel discussions, and career workshops.
Overall, my first DC experience was very rich and fulfilling, from which I drew numerous lessons and grew enormously. I brought back with me a plethora of stories, from speaking to Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Tim Kaine, to seeing former President Barack Obama going about his day, to working with high-profile Ambassadors and world leaders. Memories of significance like these may have become my go-to anecdotes, but it’s the quirky personal stories and personal growth in DC that I will always cherish.
Upon my return home, I vowed to one day return to DC. I applied for and was awarded the Fulbright Killam Fellowship, another one of the objectives I had planned for my undergraduate experience. Spending a semester in the US studying at American University was a natural step in continuing to learn not only about myself, but also about Canada-U.S. relations. Exploring this relationship continues to help me gauge the stance of these two countries on issues of international development.
However, most of all, I saw the fellowship as an opportunity to build on my DC experience, and to use this second chance to make up for my could’ves and should’ves. I can’t wait to see what fall 2017 has in store for me!