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22.01.2024

Postcard from Washington: Lydia Sung and Sebastian d’Huc

In an interview, the two Master of Public Policy (MPP) students talk about their exchange at Georgetown University.

Hertie School students Lydia Sung’s and Sebastian d’Huc’s career journey led them to a special destination: Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington D. C. The second year students of the Master of Public Policy (MPP) programme share the biggest rewards of their exchange semester.

Why did you choose this specific school and location?

Lydia: Having studied in Hong Kong and Berlin now, I wanted to understand how the US approaches policymaking. For me, Georgetown seemed to be the perfect place to do so–located in the political capital of the world, the McCourt School of Public Policy boasts connections to a vast, international community of policy professionals as well as some of the important policy institutions in the world. 

Sebastian: I applied to Georgetown because of its excellent institutional reputation, and because spending a semester in Washington D.C., the unofficial capital of the “West,” seemed very appealing to me. I was particularly intrigued by the political possibilities the city provides - at any given hour on any given day, there are at least five Think Tank events that you can go to.

What were some of your favorite courses?

Lydia: I enjoyed all my four classes at the McCourt School thoroughly. My favourite course was International Social Development Policy by Prof. James Habyarimana. With the professor’s very own field research experience as well as the rich materials from experimentation in education and health, we learnt a lot about considerations around designing and evaluating interventions in the development context. My other classes, Data Visualization, Behavioral Economics in Development, and Public Interest Technologies were equally enlightening.

Sebastian: I took four courses officially and was able to audit a fifth course at the discretion of the professor. My favorite course by far was Political Speechwriting with Prof. Sean O’Brien, who was Biden’s speechwriter during the vice presidency. Hearing the stories from “behind the scenes” of the White House, and getting lots of practice through weekly speech submissions was very useful. International Negotiations, Intro to Data Science and Public Leadership were also very good!

What was most rewarding about your exchange semester?

Lydia: Being at Georgetown and in D.C. offered unparalleled access to events and people working at different ends of policy. I really enjoyed speaking with fellow students from all walks of life and exchanging thoughts on current affairs. I also took the opportunity to connect with professionals based in the city and attend many events organised by both Georgetown as well as think tanks and NGOs. The exposure was truly eye-opening and inspiring in the sense that it made me think more about the kind of impact I want to make during my career.

Sebastian: I enjoyed the many, many extracurricular events that I was able to attend - from politicians, journalists, professors and others. Georgetown (and McCourt particularly) does an excellent job in giving you access to interesting people in D.C.. I tried to make the most of it and attended on average two or three events per day. They were an excellent supplement to the courses.

What were some challenges about your exchange semester?

Lydia: As an international student, getting settled down in D.C. was actually less scary than when I first arrived in Berlin because of the absence of language barrier. The McCourt School’s admin staff was also very responsive and helpful during the lead-up to the semester. Once the semester started however, I felt that I had to make deliberate efforts in making friends and connecting with peers as most students in our classes were second-years. Besides, the idea that I was only there for a semester sometimes was slightly stressful as there were so many events I wanted to be part of and a lot of people I wanted to connect with.

Sebastian: I did not feel that it was particularly difficult to arrive in the US - most Americans are very open and inclusive to foreigners, and Georgetown’s administrative support was very good at helping us arrive. But exchange semesters outside of the EU can be logistics-heavy in their preparation. Getting a visa on time and finding an apartment without getting scammed (be careful, future applicants!) definitely created some stress.

What surprised you the most about Georgetown and the United States?

Lydia: I had never been to the US before this semester and I had almost no idea what to expect coming to D.C. At Georgetown’s McCourt School, I became part of the Policy Innovation Lab–a professor-led student organisation that supports the city government and NGOs on an array of policy issues, from housing to economic justice. It shocked me how, despite being the capital of the wealthiest country in the world, there are such extreme disparities in D.C. I would have never guessed there were never a proper grocery store in the poorest district of D.C. until two years ago, and it baffled me how little is being done despite a high degree of political activity and civil society involvement.

Sebastian: Before coming to the US, I was worried about the state of discourse at American universities and in society as a whole. So I was quite positively surprised at the discussions at Georgetown and among my friends. While most discussions were spirited, and some heated, especially in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel, the overwhelming majority of students seemed driven by compassion and an interest for mutual understanding. I wonder whether the consequence of societal polarisation has been that now everyone is so aware of the polarisation that many consciously try to counteract it.

What advice would you give to someone considering an exchange?

Lydia: I 100% recommend doing a semester abroad, and even more so in D.C.! But it is important to note that such a preference is highly personal. As with choosing grad school, you should think hard about what you want to gain from studying abroad (for international students, a double study-abroad). Is it the opportunity of picking up a new language? Is the school located in a geographical region of your interest? What areas of policy is school strong in? These are all very important questions to consider when putting together your application. Practicalities such as financial implications and stress of relocation should also be added to the equation.

Sebastian: Firstly: Do it! Georgetown is a wonderful school and spending a few months in the US is an excellent opportunity. Secondly: Don’t underestimate the cost of living in American cities. The $11 beers hurt. And thirdly: use the network of the other Hertie exchange students at George Washington, SAIS and American University wisely. Getting the event invites and unofficial library access from each other is a huge benefit.

Hertie has been offering an exchange programme with Georgetown since 2007; typically, two students are selected per year. Learn more about our exchange programmes and studying abroad.