Week 3 – Mr. Seetamraju Goes to Washington

By: Varun Seetamraju

When I got back home in the early hours of the morning last Saturday, I remember my Mom asking the usual parent question: “What was the highlight of your trip to Washington, D.C.?”

We had just completed a grueling but exhilarating day trip to our nation’s capital, to learn about the inner workings of our federal politics, along with getting career advice from South Asians congressional staffers. That trip brought a unique view of politics compared to the work I had been doing as part of the internship for this program.

I intern at Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak’s legislative office in Edison, NJ, which is based in New Jersey’s 18th Legislative District. I started off my internship at the Assemblyman’s office by stuffing envelopes, picking up calls, and doing data entry. However, hearing the advice of speakers from past weeks about doing my best with any task that I’m given, I kept my head down and worked as hard as I could. As a result, I started to get more substantive tasks, one being writing a speech for the assemblyman for an event on the topic of bigotry. I had never written a speech before, and was thoroughly confused on what to do. I spent my days watching speeches by politicians from both the local and national level. After I gave the assemblyman’s chief of staff my best attempt at the speech, I was surprised to see that he had revised it a lot. However, that was one of the greatest learning moments for me at my time here in the office. My dad always says that, “one learns from their mistakes,” and indeed in this case, I really did learn a lot from the revisions. I learned how to write using the correct tone and wording, how to effectively use symbolism, and more.

After my experience writing the speech, I began to work on a plethora of other tasks, one being researching issues in the 18th Legislative District that fly under the radar, but have a legislative fix. For example, I looked into the spending of civil forfeiture funds on an armored Military Vehicle in East Brunswick, and possible ways the assemblyman could regulate it. This research slowly became one of my favorite things to do in the office, with addressing issues in the local community becoming something that really interested me.

As the day of the Washington, D.C. trip approached, the fellows and I were really excited to get started. What was not exciting was the 4:00 AM departure time, but once we all arrived, our collective enthusiasm drowned out whatever sleep deprivation we had.

As we arrived in D.C., we sought refuge in the air conditioned buildings in the Capitol from the 100 degree weather. Once inside the Dirksen Senate Office, we set off to our first meeting with Senator Cory Booker’s Defense and Foreign Policy Advisor, Sophia Lalani. As we walked to his office, we passed Senator Bernie Sander’s office, and many of us stopped in to take photos with his office sign. We then went to the meeting with Mrs. Lalani, where she told us about her career path and what her role in Senator Booker’s office was. She then answered our questions about her specific career path, foreign policy and the decisions the Senator and she have to make.

Next, we went over to the Capitol building to have a tour of one of Washington D.C.’s most opulent buildings. There we saw the rotunda and the elaborate architecture and paintings that span across the ceiling. One thing I found fascinating was the immortalization of many of the nation’s founders as a sort of deities. It was a bit reminiscent of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

After the tour, we had a lunch panel with five great speakers who offered advice about their experiences as Asian Americans in politics. Speakers included Congressional staffers: Moh Sharma and Courtney Hruska, along with Rachit Choksi, the Counsel to the Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, Nisha Ramachandran, the Policy Director for the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, and Kapil Sharma, the Vice President for Government and Public Affairs at Wipro. The speakers highlighted why they got involved in politics and what their path was to get there. It was really interesting to learn about the different paths the speakers took and that one’s career path is not set, with many of them initially setting out to do completely different careers than what they ended up doing.

After that, we went sightseeing where we took photos at the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court Building. Seeing the opulence of our nation’s capital still leaves me awe-stricken despite seeing it multiple times previously.

We then had another speaker come, her name was Lakshmi Sridaran, the Director of National Policy and Advocacy for South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). She outlined SAALT’s recent new direction and then started a great discussion with the fellows regarding how to deal with educating people ignorant about South Asian Americans, and how to promote more harmony externally and internally in the community.

We then had a networking dinner with a group of college students who were our counterparts from the Washington Leadership Program (WLP). This meeting was a way for us to network, along with getting advice from college students on a variety of topics, such as getting through high school, college majors, and more. Despite just meeting them for a short time, I was able to really get to know some of the the fellows in WLP well.

We then headed over to the White House for our tour of the West Wing. My only prior experience of the White House had been from seeing it on TV or from behind the tall metal fence that surrounds its perimeter. But this time I actually got to go inside the White House! On the tour we got to see famous areas, such as the Situation Room, Rose Garden, Roosevelt Room, and even got to peek inside the Oval Office! The experience was capped off with a tour of the White House Press Briefing Room on the very day Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned.

After our tour of the White House, we headed back to New Jersey, arriving in the early hours of the morning. The next morning, I remember my Mom asking the same question that I was too tired to answer earlier.

“What was the highlight of your Trip to Washington, D.C.?”

Hearing that question made me reflect on the hectic but eventful day trip and all the fun that I had spending it with the other fellows. For me, the highlight was the friendships that we developed and the way in which we bonded during that trip. I really hope the fellows next year get to experience the thrills and all the great memories that the Washington, D.C. trip brought for me.