A D.C. Externship - During the Shutdown
Christine Y. Awe, RWU Class of 2019Juris Doctor
When Christine Awe ’19 decided to spend her final semester at RWU Law taking part in the school’s D.C. Semester in Practice program – she’d been placed in an externship with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – she was ready for a firsthand, real-world legal experience.
She got more than she bargained for.
Just as Awe was preparing to leave for Washington, President Trump declared a federal government shutdown, effective at midnight on December 22, 2018. Suddenly the FCC was, for all practical purposes, closed.
“I needed the hours at this specific externship for graduation,” she said. “So it was a bit like, ‘What’s next? What are we supposed to do?’ It was frustrating because we really wanted to jump into our externships.”
Seeking solutions, Professor David Zlotnick, director of the D.C. program, and Laurie Barron, director of RWU Law’s Feinstein Center for Pro Bono & Experiential Education, reached out to Washington-area alumni.
Sarah Lim ’12, chief counsel for the Natural Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, came to the rescue for Awe and one other student. But with the furlough dominating the national dialogue, Democrats making final preparations to take over as the majority party, and some untimely office flooding, the House was in turmoil.
“I was a little worried that they were going to have a horrible experience,” Lim said. “But I think what they ended up getting was a much harder, more intimate and up-close view of real politics, versus just doing run-of-the-mill legal tasks. And it was easy to teach, because we were all learning, too.”
Awe’s first job was to help research and draft a memo on executive privilege.
“I figured that was the broadest-scope sort of thing that they could work on,” Lim explained. “It also seemed like a great sort of hot D.C. topic, working with an administration that doesn’t want to give us answers, that doesn’t respond to our requests. We were preparing to test the practical boundaries of some of those legal ideas you learn in theory.”
Awe was impressed.
“It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was so rewarding,” she said. “It opened my mind and my eyes to a different side of the legal field. We attended briefings and meetings, for instance on global warming, listening to witnesses testifying on how urgent the situation was becoming, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is much bigger than what we see on the television and what is reported.’”
The shutdown finally ended on January 25, and Awe – a native New Yorker of Nigerian descent – completed the semester as planned, working at the FCC’s Office of Workplace Diversity.
“In a sense, it was like getting two very real, practical experiences for the price of one,” she said. Returning to Rhode Island to graduate in May, she had no regrets about her decision to spend her final semester in the nation’s capital – or her law school career at RWU Law.
“Attending Roger Williams was the best decision I’ve made so far in my life,” she said. “I was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. and East Orange, N.J. – so coming to Rhode Island was a culture shock at first, but it was exactly what I needed. From my first day, I could tell that the school, the professors, the administration, everybody was invested in my success."