Training To Lead: Promising crop of Washington Leadership Program’s 2021 fellows

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Washington Leadership Program’s latest crop of graduates/fellows pose before the Washington Monument on July 4, 2021, when they were able to meet in-person during the 8-week virtual program. Photo: courtesy WLP

The WLP is a national non-profit organization which aims at equipping every emerging generation of Indian-American and other South Asian American youth with the tools necessary to take up leadership positions in the public arena. This year was no different, and the accounts the young men and women gave are heartwarming and insightful.

This Aug. 6, 2021, a new crop of promising alumni, selected through a rigorous process, emerged from the program which takes promising college students and places them in Congressional offices and government agencies for an eight-week summer internship. Students follow a structured leadership curriculum and at the end, complete a leadership project applying their learning from the summer.

Now they are part of a leadership community circulating around the country, made up of nearly 300 alumni from this program which began in 1995, when late publisher Gopal Raju started the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness in 1995. That program, over time, morphed into the WLP with leadership in the hands of a few alumni dedicated to its vision and determined to keep it going.

This year, despite the threat of Covid-19, this year’s WLP scholars got to meet national, state and local officials, policymakers, alumni who have reached important positions, and other luminaries – all online through virtual meetings. That does not seem to have taken away from their enthusiasm or their learning. Plus, they got to meet each other and spend some time in Washington, D.C. during the week of July 4.

People they got to meet virtually included, among others, Bharat Ramamurti and Sameera Fazili from the White House, deputy directors of  the National Economic Council; former Asistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal who now heads the U.S. India Business Council; former Asistant Secretary of State  and Former U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma who is now the general counsel and global head of public policy and regulatory affairs at Mastercard Inc.; Judge Srikant ‘Sri’  Srinivasan who is currently Chief United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

They also got to meet Chief Economist at Department of Commerce & WLP Alum Ronnie Chatterji; Ohio State Senator Niraj Antani (also a WLP alum); Shekar Krishnan, who recently won the New York City Council District 25 Democratic Primary and WLP alum; Vermont VT State Senator Kesha Ram; Kentucky State Representative Nima Kulkarni; former Maryland State Assemblymembers Aruna Miller and Sam Arora; U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Anurima Bhargava; CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju; and Vedant Patel and Sabrina Singh from the White House Press team.

The WLP scholars noted their experiences during every week of the 8-week stint in the nation’s capital on a blog, a lot of them gleaned from the virtual presence.

On Week 2, “The Start of Something New,” Riya Mehta of University of Southern California, wrote, “Hearing their experiences of transitioning from college to eventually reaching roles in public service showed me that a career path doesn’t have to be linear or completely mapped out.” He heard how speakers prioritized taking advantage of opportunities, even if deviating from their original plan. “This helped ease a lot of tensions I have about wanting to know exactly where I will be in ten, fifteen, or even twenty years from now,” Seetamraju said.

Ruchita Coomar blogged on Week 5 how “Every week in WLP immerses me into possibility.” She spoke of being able to open up during the panel on Civil Rights led by Anurima Bhargava of the USCIRF and Monika Varma, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

“I listened intently to Anurima’s story, as she described growing up in the South side of Chicago in a predominantly Black community,” Coomar said. “As an individual who grew up in a low-income community ravaged by institutional racism and the opioid epidemic, I asked her about growing up in a similar environment,” Coomar detailed in her blog.

“Asking that question felt like laying myself bare to the world; generally, people from my town don’t end up in places like D.C. Insecurities rooted in imposter syndrome and the feeling of being undeserving of such opportunities were voiced and out. Yet, Anurima’s answer provided me with a sense of comfort I likened to home,” Coomar movingly recounted in her account.

Eshika Kaul from Wellesley College who interned at the Department of Commerce, NOAA Office of the Chief Economist, said this by Week 6 after meeting with women elected leaders of South Asian origin, “Their main message was clear: be fearless, be bold, and take chances. As some of the first Indian women in their respective state governments, they stressed that it was not enough to simply put in hard work–you must embrace unforeseen challenges and seize unanticipated opportunities.”

The state politics panel “emphasized the importance of being willing to push open doors and to leave them open behind you for other underrepresented groups in the government,” Kaul noted.

For details on each 2021 WLP graduate visit: www.thewlp.com/meet-the-fellows

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