Data In DC

Washington, DC -- March 11th, 2O2O

Over Spring Break of 2020, I traveled to Washington DC to speak with individuals in government, business, and nonprofits about their usage of data. Additionally, I aimed to learn more about the inner workings of these organizations and to get advice on how to achieve my goals from some very successful people. I had intended to also travel to New York, but this portion of the trip was cut short due to COVID-19.

My main understandings and assumptions that changed while completing my STEP project revolve around the importance of communication. When I initially began my project by reaching out to people, I believed that the majority of people could easily understand the very technical things I am learning in school. Over the course of many conversations, I have learned that the real importance of data is how to communicate it to the decisionmakers around you. I have now talked to people all across society, and they all emphasized the importance of displaying exactly what your point is without shrouding it in detail. When talking with others, you should be to the point and intentional in your conversation.

Additionally, along with the topic of communication, I also learned that it is a core tenant of many people to want to help. Nearly everybody who I was able to make contact with was excited and passionate about sharing their experiences with someone who was wanting to learn. People genuinely cared about my goals and helped me talk through my aspirations with them. I learned that in order to be successful, it is important to be open to other ideas and to be excited for others when they are the ones who come up with the idea. In summary, it’s important to be nice.

The first activity which led to this transformation actually occurred before the project officially began. As I planned this entire trip from scratch, I had to first utilize my network to foster connections and get meetings on the books. By developing the relationships that I already had and taking all the advice and recommendations that were given, I was able to pursue meetings with people from all across the spectrum of Washington society. I learned the importance of being friendly and holding on to friendships even after you are seeing the individual face to face. Some of the people in my network who referred me to others had not seen the people in over a decade. Still, their relationship was strong enough that their friends were happy to meet with me- even if not for me, then for the people who referred me.

Another place where I certainly grew was in my confidence. I reached out to over 40 people over LinkedIn, email and other social strategies without a connection. This was a process that was initially extremely uncomfortable as I continuously found myself believing that I was being a bother. Yet, over time, the responses began coming in. People were so excited that I was pursuing an area that I am passionate about. Over time, I got connected with individuals at Washington Post, Axios, Gallup, the Census Bureau, National Geographic, and others. These are people who I had never met before and had no referral, and yet they still were wanting to help. Through this pre-trip process, I learned a lot about being bold, brave and persistent.

While on the trip, a number of the conversations and interactions that I had made a major mark on the way that I think about my future. One specifically that stuck with me was with Robert Engel, a man with an impressive political, academic and lobbying career. Over the course of his life, he has been the Executive Director of the DNC, managed Joe Biden’s political campaign, developed a program at American University, and is now a major lobbyist representing American Automakers in Washington. Through our conversation, he led me through all the dramas of his life. Many of the highs and even some of the lows. As we continued, I began to notice that some of the stories which stuck with him the most are not the major things you would think of, like being appointed to lead the DNC. Instead, they were much more subtle. Like going on walks with a Senator or walking into a congressman’s office to discuss their political leanings. By being present in the moment and having shorthand goals, he was able to extract so much more from his career. He also is able to enjoy life to a very high degree.

Now that I have completed my STEP project, I have a whole new group of people who are there to support me as I investigate my future goals. An example of important relationships that I have been able to develop is with Jennifer Morrissey and Pete Tseronis, the co-leaders of Denton’s Smart Cities and Connected Communities Think Tank. Over a nearly two-hour conversation, we were able to share the things that mattered the most in each of our lives. Additionally, we learned about the cool things that each side was working on, and through the conversation, realized the value which could be gained in continuing our conversation after the meeting. As a result of our meeting, I am not going to be more involved in this group and can serve as a voice of students around the globe as major thinkers make decisions about the future of communities. This may have a major career, personal, and community implications as I go through my life, and I am absolutely thrilled about this.

I think that now I will approach many of my relationships differently after this project. Now, instead of being nervous about how people think about me, I will strive to be myself and to see the good in all others. I have now seen firsthand the successes that can come from this strategy, and I am excited to emulate it.