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Summer Fellow: Zoe Spicer

Welcome back! Strange that I’m saying that and this will be my second and last post about this summer, as if I’m saying “Hello!” and then immediately “Goodbye!” I think it’s ok, though, because it’s a metaphor for how quickly this summer has flown by.

These past few weeks were packed with events, and I’ll look back on my time here knowing I took advantage of it. At the office, I took notes at another expert discussion on defense reform and finished up my long-term project related to Taiwanese security by translating the data I collected into a one-page report and an op-ed. I also briefed the Vandenberg team on my findings, which was exciting because I like public speaking and was glad to share what I’ve been working on. Overall, it was nice to see my work culminate in products that Vandenberg can use in policy discussions.

In terms of what I’ll call non-work work, I’ve been participating in lots of activities that Vandenberg arranged, including a dinner and discussion about the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., a book talk for Valiant Women at the Met Club, and an escape room at The Escape Game. These were a ton of fun and a great way to get to know the Vandenberg staff, my fellow interns, and others in the foreign policy community.

Related to the events of the past few weeks, there are three topics I’ve been thinking about, two professional and one more personal.

The first is that networking isn’t particularly fun. In social events and coffee chats, I heard over and over again that D.C. has a network-based culture. In some ways, it makes sense—it’s hard to measure the impact of policy, so employers rely on peoples’ reputations. Some people are naturally social and charismatic, but from my experience, networking is typically transactional—and the race to the bottom is exhausting. The best advice I received this summer was to reject that culture and talk to people you connect with or want to learn from. Intentionally or not, that’s mostly how I’ve done networking so far. But it’s hard not to feel like I’m choosing authenticity at the expense of ambition, and I’m not sure what to do with that.

The second idea that’s come up is what it means to be a woman in the workplace. At the Valiant Women book talk, it was both discouraging and empowering to hear how the women on the panel had to work twice as hard to get ahead in the national security community. They talked about being underestimated, treated differently when they dressed femininely, and facing judgment when they chose between family and work. These issues came up again after a lunch discussion when my colleague kindly told me that I had ended a sentence with, “But what do I know?” She reminded me that I should not underplay myself, especially when some people may already take me less seriously because I’m a woman.

It’s not like I’d never encountered sexism before—I competed in speech and debate (no explanation needed). I was great at being assertive in debate’s game-like setting, but in real life, I don’t put as much thought into how I’m perceived or how sexism might affect me. In a way, I’m glad these experiences reminded me of the difficulties of being a woman in the workplace because I’ll have to deal with them throughout my career. For now, I hope to support other women and learn to walk the fine line between being humble and undermining myself.

The last thing I’ve been thinking about is friendship. I had expected to make new friends in D.C. this summer, but I mostly spent time with people I knew from college or high school. Working hours were shot for friend-making, and how was I supposed to meet new people anyways—strike up a conversation in the elevator? I became close with the other Vandenberg interns, but we were all busy after work, and they had their own friends to hang out with.

That got me thinking: Will I live close to my friends after I graduate, and if not, what then? Everyone tells you that what makes college special is the people, and I’m starting to realize just how true that is. At Duke, my friends and I are all so close proximity-wise, and we have lots of free time to spend together. My time in D.C. has made me want to spend as much time as possible with those people because, after college, chances are it won’t be so easy.

So, there you are—three thoughts about life and growing up.

Reflections aside, I feel like I accomplished a lot this summer. I learned how to write a memo, explored the D.C. foreign policy scene, became more knowledgeable about a range of foreign policy topics, and met kind and thoughtful people who are dedicated to Vandenberg’s mission and care about my personal and professional success. I also went to art and history museums, watched Barbie, visited the monuments, tried new restaurants, played golf and tennis (poorly on my part), and got closer with friends. For all these reasons, I’m grateful for my time at Vandenberg and AGS’s support in making that possible.

Thanks for following along on my summer in D.C.! As I head to Taiwan to study abroad this fall, I’m sure the adventures will continue. Bye for now!