Washington Office on Latin America
KAITLIN HARLOW (BA ’19)
This summer, I worked at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) for two months as one of eight Sally Yudelman interns. WOLA is a nonprofit in Washington D.C. that promotes human rights in the Americas through a unique combination of research, strategic lobbying, on-the-ground relationships and advocacy work. They blur the distinction between think tanks and advocacy groups in order to use US policy change as a framework for lasting progress in Latin America. I can confidently say that my time with WOLA was a time of profound learning: I glimpsed a universe I never really knew existed, I adapted to a professional office environment for the first time in my life, I learned what “strategic communications” means for an organization like WOLA; I started to understand the implications of political action for human rights; and I was unsettled but inspired by the immense opportunities for professional development.
In addition to their experts in each program area such as drug policy, citizen security, Cuba, migration and border security, a key part of WOLA’s operations is its communications team. I am double majoring in Global Studies and journalism, so I was eager to embed myself in the communications work of a large, widely respected organization. As WOLA’s communications intern, I managed the interns’ twitter account and blog, tracked every article and article-reprint that mentioned WOLA or one of its experts, made graphics for WOLA’s social media, and edited videos. While tracking press hits was probably my most tedious responsibility, it also allowed me to consume tons of news about Latin America and now I am more informed about current events in the region that ever before. At WOLA I learned that institutional communications requires prioritizing how the team’s time and budget is used, and also about the importance of messaging and timeliness.
Adjusting to Washington DC was both uncomfortable and exhilarating. I had never really visualized what the early career of a Global Studies major might look like. I felt some minor culture shock when I was first immersed in the unique young professional network of DC, and not just because I had come straight from Mexico. All of the interns got to participate in “brownbag lunches” with WOLA staff and associates, ranging from assistants who had just graduated to experts who have been with WOLA for over 15 years, who told us about their career trajectories, answered questions, and gave us their best advice such as that carrying a backpack was unprofessional, never to go straight to graduate school, and that your overall success is contingent on setting up “informational interviews” in your field. Taking in so many tips and perspectives helped me to shape a totally new idea of what paths I could take after graduation. I can’t think of any place or program that would have taught me more this summer, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to learn so much at this precise point in my life.