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Introducing Meghan Cusick in DC

My name is Meghan Cusick. I’m a junior Willamette student double majoring in Politics and Communications. And I am not on a typical abroad program. I have traveled time zones and flyover states in order to study in one of the most elusive, confusing, troubling, and distant places from the American people: Washington, DC.

When I tell people that I am studying abroad this semester, I always put quotes around the word “abroad”.  At first, going “abroad” to DC didn’t seem like it really counted. I have friends in Australia, Israel, and Denmark right now. They’re trying new foods, learning a new language, and experiencing actual culture shock. I’m just going to another part of the same country, I thought to myself. Having someone refer to a soda as “pop” isn’t quite the language barrier they’re dealing with.

The Washington Semester Program at American University includes a few groups of international students, but mostly we are all just from different parts of the United States. We’ve all chosen to spend our semester “abroad” here in DC. The program is made up of different seminar classes. Each student has a seminar class worth two Willamette credits and an internship worth one. The seminar class meets about three days a week and the other two days are allotted for internships. The options for seminars cover a wide variety of topics from inequality to environmental sustainability to criminal justice and law. There is a foreign policy and international relations seminar. There is a media and journalism seminar. And, of course, there is my seminar: American Politics.

Since we all come from different regions in the US, the program directors gave us a presentation about culture shock. They fully expect students here to experience it. They expect us to cringe when someone calls a soda the wrong thing.  They gave us all kinds of advice about how to deal with culture shock. And in some ways, I understand why.

But I think they got it wrong. See, this isn’t like studying in another country where you’re the odd one out and everyone around you is part of the same culture.

My friends here are from everywhere from Ohio to Ethiopia.  Everyone here comes from a different culture. The voices in my classroom range from Brooklyn accents, to thick Boston accents, and then deep southern accents, with everything in between. And food? You can eat anything here:  Thai food, Ethiopian platters, burgers, pizza in all sorts of styles, Mexican, French, everything. Two weeks ago, I had a funnel cake delivered to my door at midnight.

Even picking out clothes quickly became a challenge because of the various types of cultures we all come from. We were told to attend all orientation events in “business causal”. This quickly became the joke of the week. See, when you tell a group of people from different places across a diverse country to wear something “business casual”, the result is that everyone will wear something different.

Some people were wearing jeans and polo shirts. Others wore khakis and button ups. Just as many people were suited up entirely. My class is still required to wear business casual attire to class and my friends and I have decided it’s best to just act like we’re dressing for the office and not worry about the degree of causal infused into our wardrobe.

The good news is that the city is no different from my little closed program. My bosses are from Texas and North Carolina. Our class speakers who work in DC are from everywhere around the country as well. Members of Congress and their staff are the same way. They travel back and forth from home every week. Everyone comes from a different background and culture and everyone came here to be a part of the never-ending hustle of the city that caters to everyone.

Sometimes, my friends and I will get caught up in a discussion about how our cultural differences and what is or isn’t “weird”. We marvel over the different lingo like “wicked” and“hella”. We talk about our favorite foods, compare Five Guys and Z Burger to In n Out. We are surprised when we find someone from a background we don’t recognize. My friends from New England are in disbelief when I tell them the high school I went to has a daycare at full capacity because of teen pregnancy. I am equally astounded when my friends from the south tell me about abstinence only education or racial relations.

This is where the opportunity to learn is no less than in a “real” abroad program. This is also where the potential for culture shock becomes less. When everyone around you is from somewhere different, uses different languages, and hold different expectations, there is no time to be shocked because there are too many cultures that could shock you.

If you drive far enough down the street I live on, you will pass what I call the Hall of Embassies. House after house is an extravagant embassy waving a flag from a different country. Of course there is Russia and China and the bigger countries. But there is also the Lithuanian embassy, the Ethiopian embassy. Embassies from countries I’ve never even heard of.  Any country you could imagine would have an embassy in the US, I see when driving down to Dupont Circle on my way out Friday night.

This is the city where ambassadors from all over the world come to live. This is where foreign nationals set up their homes and raise their flags to do business with the United States. When meeting with these people, the President and his staff have to be aware of every culture in the world so they don’t accidentally offend someone and start a war.

That’s what it’s like to live in DC. The city has to cater to everyone’s culture so that those of us who come here are really a part of it.

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