By Quinn Russell Brown
Briefings and beers. Nation-states and NGOs.
The Fall quarter began two weeks early for 19 students from the University of Washington Bothell. From Sept. 7-15, they participated in the school’s annual Washington, D.C. Seminar on Human Rights.
Professor Bruce Kochis, Senior Lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, led the group through the nation’s capital.
“Buckle your seat belts,” Kochis advised the students. “This is a trip that changes people’s lives.”
The five-credit seminar entailed choosing a human rights topic relating to United States foreign policy. Students attended two days of workshops on the UWB campus before heading to D.C., where they researched their topics during a rigorous week of meetings with politicians, think tanks and foreign embassies. Their project: a 20-25 page paper to be written throughout the Fall quarter and presented in a poster session in December.
“I really think this is the most innovative human rights class in the country,” Kochis said. “There’s nothing else like it.”
This year’s students, who ranged from ages 21 to 42, flew into D.C. on Sunday, Sept. 9 and immersed themselves in the field of human rights from Monday to Friday. Topics included human trafficking, solitary confinement, protracted refugee situations and child soldiers in Kenya, labor laws in Côte d’Ivoire, and human rights violations in Iran and China.
Days began with 8 a.m. breakfasts and wound down with debriefs till 10 p.m. In between were private meetings with some of the capital’s biggest players.
A few of the week’s highlights:
• Face-to-face meetings with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
• A Q&A with Evan Schatz, Deputy Chief of Staff for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
• A discussion about transparency in government with an envoy at the Embassy of Georgia.
• A lively talk with the ambassador from Norway.
• An off-the-record chat with the Special Assistant to the Press Secretary at the Pentagon.
• A trip to the State Department the day after the American ambassador to Libya was killed.
• A visit by Ted Piccone from the Brookings Institution and a trip to see Steven Groves at The Heritage Foundation.
The students were considered researchers, not visitors. They were expected to be as professional as those who welcomed them into their offices.
For men, it was take off your jackets only if the male speaker takes off his. Women, don’t fiddle your shoes.
The list of don’ts went on: Don’t talk too long when you’re asking a question. Don’t ask a question the speaker can’t answer. Don’t raise your hand when the speaker is talking, but rather wait until they wrap up their thoughts. No chewing gum, no falling asleep.
“It taught me professionalism and gave a real-world perspective of our government,” said student Matt Libby, who for the most part managed to stay awake and take his jacket off at the appropriate time. “We all had to be presentable but modest.”
Fitting in was key. You never knew who you were going to run into.
“I have to admit,” Libby went on. “It was pretty cool seeing John McCain in the hallway of the Senate building.”
The group stayed at the William Penn House, a Quaker hostel several blocks from the Capitol building. The Penn House has accommodated the program since 1982, when Professor Emeritus Bob Schultz, a Quaker, started the program at the University of Denver. He brought it to UWB in 1990, introduced Kochis to it in 1996, and fully handed it over to Kochis upon retiring in 2000. Kochis has since tapped Associate Professor Ron Krabill to take the group every other year.
Melissa Watkinson (UWB ’11), the Community Outreach and Events Coordinator on campus, accompanied the group as a teacher’s assistant to Kochis. A veteran of the trip two years ago, Melissa helped calm the nerves of overwhelmed students while also doing a research project of her own. But not even she could keep up with Kochis, who traveled the metro lines like a local and often left students to find their own way from meeting to meeting. (A former student noted that the thing she remembered most about the trip was “Kochis’ elbows and buns,” referring to the professor’s penchant for moving at a pace that leaves his students with a view from behind.)
Some students went out on the town after evening debriefs. But even nights out aren’t nights off in a city where politics permeates everything.
Several blocks from the Capitol steps, Remington Bar hosts a karaoke night at which Kaitlyn Adair debated a drunk lobbyist about children’s rights in Iran until she couldn’t take it anymore and stormed out.
Two blocks from that, a dive called Tune Inn features a booth in which young Sen. John F. Kennedy ate his breakfast every morning, and a chatty, gray-haired waitress who will tell you about it as if she was there.
And two more blocks down is Capitol Lounge, a sports bar that’s divided into a “Nixon room,” in which caricatures of the Republican president stare down at you from the walls as other patrons dance and clap to country music, and a “Kennedy room,” in which neither of those things happen.
Thanks to the 14-hour days, trips to the monuments had to be taken on your own time—if you could find any. For some, that meant drinks until last call and then a hike or a cab ride to whatever memorial you could think of. The capital center—through which legions of tourists, lawmakers and staffers shuffle each day—empties like a closed amusement park at night. You can walk miles without seeing anyone but drowsy police officers on the graveyard shift.
Eyelids got a little heavier from one 8 a.m. breakfast to the next. By Friday, even those students who went to bed at a reasonable hour were longing for a plane ride home, or at least a day off. Julianne Powers was ready to see her three kids again, while Amy Vondette was excited to head up to New York City on an Amtrak train.
“I was ready to go home,” Megan Hammond said. “It was nice to go home and spend Sunday just kind of processing. On the plane I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!,’ going over all the stuff that happened. It was a great trip, I wouldn’t trade it for world. But I was ready to go home on Saturday.”
Past trips have seen an arrest and a broken limb. One year two people on the trip “found each other” and later got married. Another year a student got divorced over the telephone.
There was much less drama this year. People missed metro trains and Kochis left students in the dust, but those things were expected.
Still, lives were being changed, just as the professor had promised. Natalie Wood, a senior, decided she’s moving to D.C.
“I graduate in March, and my lease is up April 30, so probably in May,” she said.
“I have no idea,” she said. ”I’m graduating, so I might as well do something crazy.”
In the meantime, the students are back home—in the “other” Washington—with binders full of notes and research papers to write.
They better keep those seat belts buckled.
Full disclosure: The author attended the trip.