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Stephanie Westman participated in the Michigan in Washington (MIW) program in the fall of 2006. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she served in the Peace Corps in Panama and then returned to Michigan to earn her law degree. She is currently a Family Law and Domestic Violence Attorney for The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, as well as a mentor for current MIW students.
Q: Where did you intern during MIW?
A: I interned at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Senator Richard Lugar. The group of interns were diverse both racially and ideologically. We attended committee and stakeholder meetings throughout D.C., wrote memos about
policy and current affairs issues, and were exposed to different opinions and viewpoints. Senator Lugar set that tone for the office and it was great to see how he interacted with everyone. He was respectful of everyone’s ideas; he was a great leader.
Q: Did you realize why you were doing MIW when you moved to D.C.?
A: At first I didn’t; I thought it would just be a fun semester working in politics outside of Michigan. I had studied abroad before I did MIW and was reluctant to take a year away from the University of Michigan. But I chose to do MIW anyway because it seemed like a valuable opportunity to gain a new experience living and working domestically before graduating.
Once I moved to D.C. and realized how livable and exciting the city was, I decided I could see myself living in D.C.. I was also here during football season so we were able to watch games with Michigan alumni, which helped me discover the vast Michigan community here.
Q: What do you do in D.C. now?
A: Currently I am a Family Law and Domestic Violence Attorney for Legal Aid of the District of Columbia. I represent domestic violence survivors in civil protection order, custody, child support, and divorce cases. I love my job;
it’s a privilege to support people going through crisis who trust me to help them stabilize their families. As a poverty law attorney in D.C., it is also a privilege to work on entrenched social justice issues with the poorest of D.C.’s
I’m in court often (some weeks, daily), I am constantly communicating with clients, I have a lot of autonomy in my case selection and professional growth, and I use my Spanish skills every single day. I love what I do. It’s phenomenal work.
Q: What is the most rewarding or interesting part of your job?
A: The clients. We also get to argue some interesting legal issues; for example, I argued an international child abduction case last summer. The best part of that case was working directly with the client and international actors to figure out the best solution to get her kids back.
Q: In what ways did participating in MIW make your transition to D.C. smoother?
A: Knowing the area, geographically and socially, was so helpful. I understood the vibe of different neighbors, which helped me decide where I wanted to live.
D.C. is a young town with big decisions being made every day. Although that can be intimidating, interning in the Senate made me realize that many people working there had similar backgrounds and stories to mine; I recognized I had the capacity to be part of those big decisions. I realized I was just as smart and competent as others. I could see myself being in a position of power in D.C. and doing good with it.
Q: What advice would you give to students in MIW about how to make the most of their time in D.C.?
A: I would tell students to connect with their mentors and allow their mentors to connect them to other people doing interesting things. Get out and meet everyone you can. D.C. has a huge Michigan alum community; it’s easy to expose
yourself to different kinds of jobs, opportunities, and stories.
It’s easy to want to only spend time with other interns after work hours. It’s more difficult to network and make connections, but you can go to free events like book signings and Smithsonian talks. Immerse yourself in the young culture of the city. Find something that interests you and elevates the way you interact with your community, even if you are only in D.C. for a short time.
Lastly, say yes to every opportunity at your internship. Leverage every chance to interact with the staff, even if it’s refilling the printer paper. Make your presence known in a good way, ask to meet with a staff member doing interesting work, go to coffee with them or sit outside on the lawn and have lunch with them, and ask people about themselves.
Q: What is challenging about living in D.C., or different from living on a college campus, that MIW can help prepare students for?
A: D.C. has the normal frustrations of a city. The Metro lines don’t always work and sometimes the bus is half an hour late. MIW makes it easy because your classes and living space are in the same building and it’s relatively close to
most jobs, so it can make figuring out the public transit system much easier.
Q: As a MIW Mentor, how do you see students grow during their time in D.C.?
A: I see students’ worlds open up a little bit more. It’s great to see people who are given the opportunity to expand their horizons and take advantage of it. Living in a city, but particularly this city which is so international, opens
many people’s eyes. I try to invite my mentees to come to court with me or get coffee with my attorney friends to allow them to interact with more working people in D.C., as well as see the issues and concerns that face many of my
Q: What is your favorite part about living in D.C. and why would you recommend that students spend a semester here?
A: Despite its issues, I enjoy D.C.’s public transportation. The entire city is accessible and easy to explore and I don’t have to drive through the traffic. I also enjoy the historical parts of D.C. and its surrounding areas.
My real favorite part is that there are so many passionate people doing amazing things in this city, and they are generally nice and willing to open up about their work. D.C. has a somewhat transient culture amongst young professionals, but it doesn’t harden people. I find that most people I meet are willing and happy to discuss their work and network with young professionals; because they know those kids will do great things and pay it forward.