University of Washington

Rosenthal Fellow's D.C. work affirms interest in policy


By Shirley Qiu
April 24, 2014

Wes Kovarik (MAIS/JD 2014) had known from a young age that he was interested in politics, but this past summer, his longtime interest solidified after getting a real taste of political work life in the nation’s capital.

Kovarik was one of 23 students selected last year for the Harold W. Rosenthal Fellowship, a nation-wide program for graduate students interested in international relations.

During the three-month fellowship, Kovarik worked in Rep. Jim McDermott’s (WA-7) office in Washington, D.C., under the guidance of McDermott’s senior legislative assistant of foreign affairs.

Wes Kovarik (right) poses with Rep. Jim McDermott (WA-7).

Kovarik said he focused on the issues McDermott felt most strongly about, which, over the summer, included foreign ties with Iran, Egypt and North Korea—specifically, drone use and depleted uranium from the Gulf War. His duties varied, from gathering background information and tracking legislation about those issues to preparing press clippings.

While he had been to D.C. before for the House of Representatives page program during high school, he said it was difficult knowing what to expect going into the fellowship.

“It was scary for the first couple days,” he said. “…You obviously know it’s not going to be The West Wing or like what you see on TV a lot of times…but I think a very small part of you wants it to be very fast paced and people really needing you.”

Kovarik said that while the work was indeed fast-paced a lot of the time, it was also slow at other times, just like any other job. However, he took advantage of the various political opportunities outside of work, including a roundtable discussion with China and North Korea experts.

“Congressman McDermott gave us a lot of flexibility to say, I realize this is a summer position, you’re doing whatever’s asked of you by my staff, but also take every advantage to go it on your own, “ Kovarik said. “We weren’t penned up in a little room all day.”

The mood in the office, though serious in regards to work matters, was also balanced with a lighter side. The office would have casual Fridays, and Kovarik at one point got to meet Stephen Colbert when he interviewed McDermott.

The office atmosphere was particularly fun in Kovarik’s case, because he got to work alongside another Rosenthal Fellow each day, University of Denver graduate student Callum Forster.

Wes Kovarik in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Working in the same office at adjacent desks for three months, the two had the unique opportunity to share the whole fellowship experience. Forster said he and Kovarik have stayed in touch since the end of the fellowship.

“We talk a lot, even now, about things to do with international studies or general life,” Forster said. “The fellowship definitely made us very close, we got to know each other very well.”

Kovarik’s friendship with Forster perhaps best demonstrates what he learned about social life in D.C.

“From what I can tell, your friends might be who you work with, and your jobs kind of bleed over into social life,” he said. “A lot of the conversations tend to be very, I guess, somewhat serious about current affairs…people are very interested in politics and very interested in how to make a difference.”

However, Kovarik was able to maintain a good work-life balance, forming a friendship at work and exploring the city in his off-time.

All in all, Kovarik said he enjoyed being a part, albeit small part, of that political hub in D.C. He plans to move back in August.

“The biggest takeaway was that I enjoyed that lifestyle and career,” he said. “I think it solidified in me that I would like to go back…The absolute breadth of opportunities in D.C. is unmatched.”