Author:
Sandra Võsaste

SUMMER IN DC

I’m Sandra Võsaste, a second-year master’s student at the University of Tartu.  I am especially passionate about penal law, and international criminal law in particular.
Last summer taught me that if you read your faculty newsletters carefully enough, you might be in for the greatest adventure of
your university years.
 

When browsing the newsletter last year, I discovered an offer among tens of others which allows one Estonian student to head to Washington, DC, for two months in the summer.
The secret of a successful application turned out to be simple
I just had to apply. The application mostly consisted of short essay questions meant to estimate a candidate’s motivation and earlier activity that might support their participation in the program. International affairs, my preferred program track, also required submitting a full essay about any topic related to international relations.

Thanks to the International Criminal Law
course at the university, I just had one up my sleeve. The application process did not seem to be an overly difficult journey, but the number of different requirements made me guess that there would not be a lot of students willing to complete the process. Therefore, the time spent on the application seemed like a low-risk investment.

As I
know by now, it paid off tenfold. At the beginning of June, I arrived in DC as one of the 300 participants in the summer program of The Fund for American Studies, which consisted of summer university courses, an internship and countless additional career development and educational opportunities.
 

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Inspireeriv kohtumine stipendiumi rahastajate, Louis DeJoy ja Aldona Wosiga viis uute võimalusteni

Meeting the funders of the scholarship, Louis DeJoy and Aldona Wos, was an inspiring experience that led to new opportunities.

A city like LinkedIn 

On the first day of the program, I found myself among a hall full of students, all longing to be future congressmen, lobbyists, CIA analysts or diplomates, and all dressed as if they were running for president in the upcoming elections.

Already at the opening ceremony, we were told that there are only two things that matter in DC: first impressions and connections. All students set off to actively pursue both without losing any time. 

The people of DC love big names and titles, which was also confirmed at my internship institution. I interned at the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC), an organization representing the interests of the Baltic diaspora in relation to the Congress.

As some of the people at the Estonian embassy in Washington like to put it, JBANC and the embassies of Baltic countries are like two sides of the same cointhe embassies represent the official standpoint and communication of the countries, whereas JBANC stands for the constituents in the U.S. Currently, the main issue in representing the Baltics was national security.

For that reason, I spent a large share of my internship period visiting various foreign policy conferences, panel discussions or simply monitoring foreign policy news. This work served to prepare for the other part of the work at the organizationcommunicating with the Congress.  

Nearly every week, our team headed to the Capitol for pre-arranged meetings with officials. Sometimes, however, the goal was to build new connections or set up meetings “on the go” to plant ideas relevant to the Baltics into the staffers’ consciousness. 

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Sandra Võsaste praktikasuvi Washingtonis

Even the congress staff said they can never really get used to the view of the Capitol.

“DC runs on interns” is often said in Washington if the city did not constantly attract thousands of interns, often working for free or for a minimum salary, it would probably not be possible to cover all the labor expenses the capital of the U.S. needs.

Every time I entered a congressional office with a task entrusted to me, I was welcomed by at least one or two interns with several band-aids on their high-heeled feet or simply feeling uncomfortable wearing a suit.

Much like myself, they tried to be as courteous, official and friendly as possible, assuring me that they would do everything in their power to pass my information and materials on to the congressman. This was obviously followed by an exchange of business cards. It often felt like a short theatrical performance previously agreed by both sides, as such tone and conversation would feel absolutely ridiculous if we met with the same interns in any other kind of situation. 

One of the most crucial goals of my internship was organizing the Baltic Advocacy Day. This event brings together the representatives of the Baltic nations and other people sharing similar interests across the U.S. to meet the Congress staffers and to explain issues important to them as constituents.

As the team of JBANC was small, I got to try my hand at all the tasks related to organizing an event, from creating a marketing plan and scheduling meetings to preparing the content of the agenda and moderating the meetings. 

More opportunities than hours in the day  

Exciting opportunities often came my way outside of normal business hours. One Sunday, my supervisor sent me a text: “Can’t make it to DC today, could you go to the protest instead of me and maybe say a couple of words?” Our organization works closely together with many Ukrainian activists and organizations, one of whom was organizing a demonstration in front of the White House on the 500th day of the full-scale war.

My boss was supposed to give a short speech at the event, but now, the unique opportunity to speak to the blue-yellow crowds was passed on to me!  

Even though I had no previous experience of speaking into a megaphone at a protest, putting together a short and concise yet meaningful text is something my studies had already allowed me to practice so much that the task did not seem daunting.  

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Venemaa Ukrainas algatatud sõja 500. päeval kogunesime koos Ukraina aktivistidega Valge Maja ette

On the 500th day of the full-scale war in Ukraine, we gathered with Ukrainian activists in front of the White House.

The same was true of the presentation of the text: a law student halfway through her master's degree should no longer be afraid of such things. Words of thanks and praise from my Ukrainian friend after hearing the speech proved that I was at least somewhat able to accomplish the task. 

The Fund for American Studies itself offered an immense range of opportunities for visiting different establishments and getting to know interesting people. An alumnus of the program, Congressman David Rouzer, gave us a tour of the Capitol, we visited several embassies and received career advice from the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Department of Defense and UN, most of whom were also alumni of our program. 

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Sandra Võsaste

The scholarship awarded annually to an Estonian student is funded by the Louis DeJoy and Aldona Wos Family Foundation, respectively the Postmaster General of the USA and the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia.

The opportunity to meet them for dinner was an inspiring experience in itself, but the meetings always brought along something new.

As Ambassador Wos is the President of the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school for security and intelligence professionals, I was offered to visit the school and listen to some classes. I chose to visit the lectures a former intelligence officer gave about Russian and Soviet intelligence services. 

As a cherry on top of my DC experience, I had the opportunity to visit the Estonian embassy and meet Ambassador Kristjan Prikk.

In the historical embassy building, I learned a lot about the functioning of one of the biggest embassies of Estonia, the beauty and the pain of the work of a diplomat and the crucial work our foreign representatives are doing daily. 

However fulfilling my academic and professional program, the summer would not have been the same without the student life of DC.

The city was packed with interns of governmental institutions, lobbying firms and think tanks. All the interns of my program were living together on the George Washington University campus in the center of DC.

This meant morning group jogging around the Washington Monument, straight-out-of-a-movie dorm parties and picnics by the Lincoln Memorial.

Although it is an uplifting thought, to maybe have spent the summer with some of the future politicians and diplomats, I am much more pleased with the fact that now I have a good friend or two in most of the states. 

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Ka Potomaci jõel kanuutades ei olnud monumentidest pääsu

Even canoeing on the Potomac River was no escape from the monuments.

A law student like a fish to water 

The program offered many events where a law student could feel like a fish in water. For example, we held a debate on the topic “Should the U.S. remain a global hegemon?” As an interesting surprise, this exercise allowed me to see inside the minds of the young, mostly patriotic Americans, but also to tease them with the question of why the U.S. is still not a part of the International Criminal Court. 

In a diplomatic simulation, we performed the roles of different national delegations to find a solution and end the war in Ukraine. After drawing lots, I became a part of the Ukrainian delegation.

At some point in the discussion, I had to find a solution to a situation where a Russian delegate, actually a good friend of mine, demanded an apology from me, or the Russian delegation would not continue with the negotiations. Once this “crisis” was solved, we received the news from real life that the USA had agreed to provide cluster munition to Ukrainethis, too, had to be considered in continuing our simulation. 

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Mitu programmi üritust nõudsid samu oskusi, mida on vaja ka harjutuskohtus

Several events in the program required the same skills as the moot courts.

The summer in DC was another affirmation that a law degree is a strong basis anywhere in the world. I often had to explain what my internship organization does or where a town called Tartu is located, but when someone asked me what I was studying, I never had to say it twice but received an affirming nod right away.

Secondly, the experience showed once again that legal studies do not have to be the beginning of a classical lawyer/judge/prosecutor journey but can be a basis for something new and wider. 

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