As this summer in DC flies by, I’ve been reflecting on the many people who have made an impact on me here. One person who has really meant a lot to me is Farah Sabir, who is the program fellow for SBS in DC. Farah graduated from UMass Amherst this past spring with a bachelor’s in political science. During her time on campus, she was a tour guide and a member of the SBS in DC 2019 cohort. Farah spent her senior year, and this summer, as the SBS in DC program fellow, working alongside the director, Rebecca Bell, to make this program as robust as it can be.
This summer, I’ve gotten to know her as a friend and a housemate as she continues to provide support for our cohort. I sat down with Farah to talk about her extensive professional experiences and how they’ve impacted her personally.
How did you first hear about SBS in DC?
Farah: I first heard about it my first year at UMass Amherst through my Russian foreign policy class. There was a student in it who was going into his junior year. He was part of SBS in DC, and that was the first year that they were running the program. I ended up finding the program’s Instagram account too. I was excited to apply after hearing the experience of that one student, and then following the cohort’s journey over Instagram throughout the summer—by far the best decision I’ve made at UMass Amherst! SBS in DC has been the best way to see American politics play out firsthand, get hands-on experience, see what all these concepts from class connect to, and understand the institutions better than you ever could from the classroom.
Can you talk a little bit about your time in the program in 2019? What were your professional and personal development experiences like?
Farah: My time in summer 2019 was surreal and incredibly insightful. It was my first time getting any sort of internship experience, and I applied to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office, which was mind-blowing! It didn’t register at the time that I was about to be in Warren’s office when she was running for president.
The internship with Senator Warren was for six weeks, and we have a ten-week internship requirement as part of SBS in DC. So, through an alum connection, I was able to supplement this internship with another one in the office of Representative Tony Cárdenas, who is the congressman for the 29th district of California. As a result, I got to intern on the House side of the US Capitol for about a month and then transitioned over to the Senate side for the last month and a half. Professionally, it was incredible walking through the halls of Congress with the likes of people that I look up to, like: Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — I even saw Nancy Pelosi once! I was able to give tours of the Capitol building; it was just so surreal being a part of those institutions that you always only hear about from the classroom.
I also just developed such amazing friendships. I lived in a house with eight people — the rest of our cohort was in a different house right near us.
My house consisted of eight girls altogether, and we developed such great, intimate connections. We would come home and vent to each other about whatever happened during the day. We’d learn from each other; we would just listen to each other.
To this day, we still keep up with our group chat. If someone gets a new job, if someone’s doing something really cool or we hear about some promotion — we’ll always tell each other. It was just amazing to have that support and that community behind you.
What was your biggest takeaway from summer 2019 as a whole?
Farah: I thought coming into my first summer in DC, I was going to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, or at least that it’d become way more clear — like it would all just click. And it did click in a lot of great ways. I learned that I wanted to be back in DC, and that I definitely wanted to continue on this path and explore my different interests in politics. That being said, in a lot of ways I walked away from that summer even more unsure of what I wanted to do. But, that was a good thing because it meant that I had connected with so many people, I learned about so many different fields of work, and learned about so many different issue areas. I came out of it not knowing what I wanted to do, but I felt more okay about that and open to new opportunities.
I also walked away with this new sense of confidence after realizing that there’s a lot of space and a lot of need for younger voices, the voices of people of color, women of color, women in general, etc. Through listening to and communicating with constituents, I learned the value of voicing your opinion in these spaces. I never really had before. Initially, I never had any role models within this field. My parents never went to college, and they weren’t connected to this field at all.
SBS in DC helped me come into a place that I didn’t even know existed for me.
What inspired you to come back to the program as the program fellow for SBS in DC this year? What exactly does your current role entail?
Farah: I always tried to stay connected to SBS in DC after I finished the program by relaying my experiences to prospective applicants at information sessions, and staying in contact with Rebecca Bell. Then in the summer of 2020, Rebecca reached out to me saying that the previous program fellow had graduated — so the position was open again, and she invited me to become the program fellow for 2020-2021. I think I said yes on the spot because it’s so meaningful to me to be in roles where I can help out students whose shoes I was in so recently. That was also one of the reasons why I became a tour guide — I wanted to help students just like me, who were exploring to see what they wanted in a school and trying to see if UMass Amherst was a good fit.
My role as program fellow was to support the execution of the program from start to finish with the next cohort. In the fall, that meant helping plan out the application timeline, planning information sessions, and putting together social media graphics. Then, once we started getting applicants, we would go through the process of selecting an amazing group of twenty students for the cohort. Then, that role turned into supporting students throughout their professional development journeys, so Rebecca and I worked to plan and facilitate a spring semester class. Throughout the spring, we were always reviewing cover letters, maintaining connections with different internship sites, and, of course, at the end of the day, trying to secure the students’ internships for the summer.
As this year’s fellow, would you say you have a greater appreciation for the inner workings of the program?
Farah: Absolutely! When I was going through the program originally, of course I had an appreciation for the people supporting me, understanding that donors help make this happen and that different alumni use their networks to help build the program’s network. But as the fellow I got even greater insight. I got to see how willing alumni were to give their time, money, and resources. I got to witness how much career advisors really care about your success — Rebecca cares so much about each and every student; she still follows up with my cohort about what we’re doing and if she sees an opportunity that comes her way that she thinks we would appreciate, she would send it over to us.
There are also so many moving parts to this program that I now have much more appreciation for the administrative and logistical side of things. It’s something that I’ll always talk about in interviews moving forward, because it just taught me so many great skills.
How does your experience from this summer differ from your experience two years ago?
Farah: I feel more confident being here this summer. For one thing, I’m more familiar with Washington, DC from my experiences in 2019. I also had connections from the network I started two years ago. I knew that there were already people out here who supported me, who I wanted to reconnect with. And now, I’m job searching, so I’m looking at these connections in a different light because back then, it was like, “I would love your support for when I apply for jobs,” and now, it’s like, “Oh I’m applying for jobs, so I would love for you to keep me in the loop.” I have a more specific outlook this summer because I know that I want to stay in the city, and I want to find my way in.
What was your process for building a professional network in DC? Can you talk about some of the most meaningful relationships you’ve developed?
Farah: I reached out to the alumni network first to see who was doing work in the areas that I was interested in. With this program, there’s a lot of alumni who want to help you, and they’re super accessible. They want to give you their time.
SBS in DC also gives you an assigned alum mentor. My mentor was a legislative director and chief of staff in one of the offices I was working in. She was a great resource; she was the first mentor I’ve had who actually looks like me as a woman of color in these spaces.
Also, in my internships, I made it a priority to actually meet one-on-one with the people in my offices. There was a staff assistant in Senator Warren’s office who was a really great support for the interns. After that summer, she helped with different recommendations with fellowships I was applying to.
Describe your favorite memory so far from this summer.
Farah: Okay, this is easy. A few times now, a lot of the cohort has gone to the National Mall at night. That has been a really enriching memory because we just enjoy each other’s company so much; it’s been great to see the cohort bond as a whole and to be part of that. We don’t even have to do much, just those little adventures have been super fun. It’s so surreal, just listening to music, taking in the views of all the monuments, all with a really amazing group of individuals.
What are you most excited about for the future, for the program and for your own journey?
Farah: For the future, I’m excited to see this program just continue to grow. It’s still so new. Next year is going to be the five year mark for the next cohort. I’m just excited to see it expand both with the resources. Of course, as more alumni get connected or more internship sites get connected, the networks keep growing. Eventually, I’m sure that means the number of students who can access the program will grow; we might be able to have housing longer — who knows what will happen? I think the possibilities are endless.
I’m excited to see the new faces that come into the program and how it will impact them, because I think the professional and personal growth is so real for each person who goes through it. And I love how this program really tries to just attract the people who otherwise couldn’t picture themselves in these places because there’s a huge access gap in DC. And I’m so excited to one day be able to help with this program whether it’s as a mentor or to host an intern. So I’m just excited to give back to it in the future because of how much it has given to me.
Personally for now, I’m just really looking forward to finding my place in this city. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m just finding a job in Washington, DC at a place where I can do meaningful work.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in applying to SBS in DC?
Farah: First of all, don’t even think about not applying. My mentality is that everyone should just go for it. It’s a life-changing opportunity, which is so cliché, but I stand by that every time I say it.
My best advice for applying is to articulate why this experience would be meaningful to you beyond the thrills of being in the city. What will you take away from your summer? How will it impact you in the long run? The growth you’ll walk away with is really unmatched.
Like Farah, I’m just as excited to see this program grow and for more students to apply in the fall. She has inspired me to be a resource and a support to future cohorts in any way that I can, and I’m very much looking forward to visiting her in DC after the summer ends.