Wednesday January 23, 2013

Karen Gross

Washington, D.C. - regardless of your political persuasion - is a magnificent city, a place deserving of being called our nation’s capital. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Memorial to the Vietnam Memorial to the White House to the cherry blossoms, the city engenders pride, even awe.

The recent inaugural events -- from the yellow St. John’s Episcopal Church to the Mall filled with people -- showcase the city’s majesty. And, it is a walking city, where one can perambulate among the monuments and the government buildings, enjoying the oft-good weather (except in the summer).

Photographs barely capture the city’s essence.

As many of you know, I spent this past year in Washington as senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to experiencing the outside elegance of D.C. as I commuted to work each day from Foggy Bottom, I saw the "inside" of the city too.

For starters, I was privileged to enter buildings and rooms where tourists do not normally go, such as the White House, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the Truman Bowling Alley, the Pentagon, various secretaries’ conference rooms. You can only imagine the level of security at each of these locations. My own office at the Department of Ed looked out at our Capital, and despite often working at night, nothing beat sitting in my office chair in the evening with the stunning lit Capital in the background.

But, of greater importance, I participated in efforts to resolve issues of national importance with both political appointees and civil servants. I met generals and undersecretaries and deputy secretaries; I met commissioners and members of the domestic policy council and the national security staff; I met chiefs of staff and senior executive staff.

What was remarkable, and something that ran counter to my preconceived notions of government, was the dedication, thoughtfulness and capacity of government employees. Yes, getting things done is hard within a single federal agency and most assuredly across different federal agencies. Yes, there is political wrangling. Yes, there is compromise. Yes, things do not always go one’s way. But, despite that, the people employed by our government at all levels were unwavering in their effort to make a positive difference for our Nation and its citizens.

I return to Bennington and the college with many stories of my experiences "inside the Beltway," some inspiring, some difficult, some surprising, some funny. I look forward to sharing them with the students, faculty and staff at Southern Vermont College, with the local community and across our state. We have already organized some gatherings for these conversations.

But, here is perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my year in DC: I return home with newfound appreciation for Washington, D.C., both on the outside and the inside. Instead of increased cynicism and frustration and feeling battered, I come back home having worked with remarkable men and women on things that truly mattered. Not a bad result coming from a year’s service to our nation.

Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.