In an intellectual sense, the University isn’t lying when it boasts about diversity on campus. The sheer number of academic programs available puts even Harvard — sorry, the Michigan of the East — to shame, and creates a vibrant body of students with unique backgrounds and differing viewpoints. The University has its share of excitement as well — it has attracted President Barack Obama here three times since 2010, and a century-old obsession with football turns campus into a madhouse on a regular basis. All of this and more makes this town the most interesting place to live in (and, somehow, the second-best city in the United States for dating. Go figure).
But Ann Arbor isn’t always the best place to be for four full academic years. Study abroad and away programs provide unique opportunities to learn, intern, use language skills and mature on a personal level. These places offer students of all majors new opportunities and a different brand of excitement than the norm, and thanks to copious amounts of scholarship funding, they have become increasingly accessible to students in recent years.
In other words, all of us at Michigan face a question: If not Ann Arbor, where?
For this American politics and international relations-obsessed Public Policy major, Washington, D.C. was the only answer. I spent last winter taking classes and interning there through the Michigan in Washington Program, and it was the Holy Grail of off-campus undergraduate experiences. The work experience was interesting and useful, the classes were unique, and living in the heart of D.C. afforded me some of the best access I may ever get to its attractions — from congressional hearings and rallies on the Hill to events hosted by institutions such as the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Atlantic Council.
It’s hard to find flaws in the city to which you intend to move after graduation, but D.C. doesn’t have the kinds of spaces good for thinking, reflecting and working without interruption that are spread all over the University’s campus. The tradeoffs, though, more than made up for that particular weak point. In addition to the seats of all three branches of government, famed and historic landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the National Mall were all accessible on a whim. And in all of their fame and history, these places within a place changed me in ways no internship, book or Mason Hall class could have possibly done.
Let me give you an example. One frigid Thursday night late last January, my roommate and I decided to brave the cold and go down to the western end of the Mall. The city was nearly as dead at 11 p.m. as Ann Arbor usually is at 4 a.m., and seemed about as safe. We made our way through the city, down past the long Reflecting Pool and to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was my roommate’s first time there, and he listened to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech while standing where he once stood — a fitting act for a future civil rights lawyer.
Afterwards, we moved on to what I wanted to see for the first time: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Few places in D.C., Ann Arbor or elsewhere compare to this, and entering it that night was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. As my roommate and I started walking along the Memorial Wall, it rose from just 8 inches to over 10 feet tall — the height of one American soldier’s name to several, to dozens and then scores of names etched into a sober sea of burnished black granite. It immersed us in the memories of those lost in a war overwhelmingly rejected by a generation of college students, for whom conscription rendered it far too close to home. Even now, back home in Ann Arbor at last for a little while longer, it lingers in my mind as both a memorial and a reminder of how devastating governmental failure can be for nations at war.
That night, those thousands of names seared the human costs of war into my mind in a new and very permanent way. I am a better person for it, and will (I hope) make a better policymaker someday as a result of that experience and my time in D.C. That place is my answer.