“Looking Back Over My Shoulder” – Rebecca Dwyer reflects back on Day One of the 2012 Program

Rebecca Dwyer takes a look back at the first day of the program, which after two and half weeks may serve as a timely reminder of the great speakers and their messages, but also the speed at which the program is travelling.

A New Chapter

Monday 11th June 2012 – Week 1 Day 1

Introduction

Today was not the beginning of the book, but the beginning of a new chapter for the Washington Ireland Program Class of 2012, according to Bryan Patten, Executive Director of WIP. Today was our first official day in Washington DC. It was also my first day to use the Washington Metro. My host-mom, Leslie, very kindly drove me to the station so that I would know exactly where it is for future reference. I had a SmarTrip Card which I was able to use to get past the turnstiles and onto the platform. I met Ben Mallon and his host-mom, Lenore, on the platform. Lenore was with Ben because she was due to give us a talk on Health Issues this morning. Together, we took the train into the center of DC.

The building of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers was almost directly across the street from the metro station. It was easy to find as Ronan, my Management Team Leader, was outside the front entrance pointing “WIPers” in the right direction. After signing in, I went up to one of the top floors with the rest of the group and we took our seats in the boardroom.

Bryan gave us a brief introduction to the day, made clear the program etiquette and told us what to expect in the first week. The structure of the program is as follows.

Week 1                 Orientation

Week 2 – 4          Work Placement

Week 5                 New York City

Week 6 – 8          Work Placement

Then, we had our first speaker.

Lenore Martinez – Health Issues

Lenore is a highly qualified nurse who has worked in many positions in a number of different hospitals and surgical units. Lenore spoke to us about the various health issues we may encounter during our stay in D.C. She explained the use of the medical insurance cards, what to do of you get badly bitten by an insect or stung by a poisonous plant and reminded us that cars drive on the right side of the road in the US (you would be amazed how instinct makes you look the “wrong” way when crossing the street in a foreign country!). Her main point, however, was regarding hydration or dehydration as the case may be. The climate here is very hot and humid and we learned that it is extremely important to always carry a bottle of water and to wear plenty of sun cream. Lenore repeated the three key things to remember. They are water, sun cream and bug spray.

Barbara Warner – Budgeting and Tracking of Expenses

Barbara is a Certified Financial Planner and President of Warner Financial. She is also Ciarán’s host-mom and has been involved with WIP for some time. She spoke to us about the many costs we will incur during our stay in DC and how to keep those to a minimum. The three main expenses we will incur during the next two months are transport, phone usage and ‘food and entertainment’. Her son also gave us a young person’s perspective on life in the nation’s capital.

Patrick Burke – DC Police Chief

Unfortunately, there is a very big gun culture in the US. Patrick explained that, while it is illegal for a civilian to carry a weapon in public in DC and Maryland, this is not the case in Virginia and, even though the law is there, this does not mean that people don’t disobey it. Things like eating or drinking on the metro and underage alcohol consumption are arrestable offences here in DC. Patrick didn’t give us all doom and gloom advice, though! DC is predominantly African-American but racial relations are quite good for the most part. He was also a WIP host-dad for previous years’ classes. He told us about a number of interesting things to do in DC while we are here, such as going to see a baseball game and watching the military or police bands playing at them, renting a bike and taking the bike-trail to the zoo and visiting the many Smithsonian museums, all of which are free of charge. He very kindly offered his assistance to any of us who would be interested in finding out more about the work of the police force.

Mark Shields and E.J. Dionne – Red, Blue and Purple: America Divided

Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator and has worked through the administrations of nine US presidents. He was an editorial writer for the Washington Post where he began writing his column is 1979. Today, he spoke about the upcoming election in comparison to elections of bygone eras. The common thread running throughout his session was optimism. He mentioned two US presidents who were both profoundly optimistic, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. His rule of thumb when it comes to politics and the economy is that when the economy is down, the economy is the only issue. He told us that there are two kinds of republicans, the “five-minutes to midnight” with the view that things are already bad and are going to get even worse and the “five-minutes to sunrise” with the view that things may be bad now but they will get better soon.

E.J. Dionne began his career with the New York Times. He is a regular contributor to NBC’s Meet the Press and has also appeared on News Hour with Jim Lehrer and other PBS programs. Today, he, too, spoke about US presidential elections. He had three main points. The first was that we should be aware that, in every election in all democracies, people will always tell you that this election is the most important election in our lifetime no matter who is running or what state the nation may be in. His second point was that we should be wary of any decisive predictions that we will hear in the run up to the election. The third point was that there are plausible ways that the election could be be tied. He also spoke about the two unwritten rules in American politics. The first is that one must belong to a political party and the second is that you must belong to an organised religion.

The question of dealing with people who don’t agree with you was raised by one of the WIP students. Exposure was the answer. The more you get to know a person, the easier it is to deal with differences. Even if you disagree with someone, you can get on with them if you are exposed to each other. Mark would make it mandatory for the congressmen to spend time with each other outside of congress. He believes that a personal relationship is very important for any sort of good negotiation to be had at the workplace.

Kevin Sullivan – Chairman, Washington Ireland Program

Kevin has been a member of the board since 2002 and was elected Chairman in 2006. He is an independent consultant with a practice focusing on education reform. His clients include the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the No Child Left Inside Coalition, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities and many more. Unfortunately, Frank Cantrell, Vice President of federal government relations for Verizon, a $100 billion broadband company, was unable to attend the session but Kevin spoke about his and Frank’s vision for the future of WIP. He spoke about how this is a leadership course intended to challenge those taking part in it. While Kevin and Frank are the “push” behind the program, what we get out of it must come from us, the students. For example, in our internships Kevin advised us to take a very proactive approach, never to sit around waiting for something to do and always to be involved and asking for work. I think this is excellent advice. “Simply because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader,” said Kevin. Martin Luther King was 26 when he became leader of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s only 6 years older than me!

Jim Walsh – Congressman (Republican)

Jim Walsh retired from the United States Congress last year after representing upstate New York for twenty years. His background is in telecommunications. He is a long-time supporter of WIP and has co-chaired the House Ad-Hoc Committee on Ireland for over ten years. He was deeply involved in the Irish Peace Process. He believes that human interaction is the key to representation politics and he has the view that all politics is local. In answer to a question regarding what he learned about leadership when he was involved in the Peace Process, Jim explained how people must be willing to give a little but compromise is impossible until there is mutual respect between both sides. He thinks the parties in Northern Ireland won each others respect because they stood up for what they believed in but reconciliation takes a long time.

Conclusion

Today was an excellent opening to what is going to be a fantastic eight weeks. I have learned a lot from the many wonderful speakers we have heard from so far. I also saw the White House with some of the other WIP interns and took lots of photos. Washington DC is a very beautiful and insightful city. Bring on the next chapter!

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