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Alumni

Doing it for the Story: WSP Alum Ben Thomas Helps Celebrate 20 years of Local Art in DC - One Storyteller at a Time

By Kelly Kimball

Washington Semester Program alum Ben Thomas poses in front of a wooden wall.

If you were to ask Washington Semester Program alum Ben Thomas to tell you a great story, he'll likely tell you about the time he got a live cheetah into the U.S. Capitol Building, or the time he walked 500 miles in borrowed underwear, or the night he spent on Stonewall Jackson's grave.

At least, that's what his staff bio on Story District's website professes.

"At the core of storytelling," he explains, "is the chance for an individual to reflect on their own experience and share it in a way that distills it down to its universal themes." Ben Thomas, now the Marketing & Communications Coordinator for a local arts organization known as Story District, credits WSP for offering a much-needed foothold in Washington. That foothold granted him the skills and confidence to step into the working world.

Ben participated in the Washington Semester Program in the Fall of 2006 and took the Foreign Policy concentration taught by Professor Christian Maisch. From the get-go, Ben arrived with strong interests in community-building and applied it to a marketing and communications internship at the Inter-American Foundation. He worked under a program officer to write communication briefs and develop business support for communities in Latin America. After WSP, Ben went on to work for Barack Obama's 2008 political campaign, where he consequently fell in love with DC's local art scene and realized his interest in developing events centered on art-making.

"I realized I didn't necessarily like the front lines [of politics] and preferred organizing, putting together, and working with people to create big events," explains Ben. What brought him to making the jump and joining Story District's team was due to their values of "creating a venue for diverse voices to get on stage and tell true stories about their lives. [Our storytellers] are everyday folks...who have a creative outlook and want to share with a group of people who foster compassion and connection."

With a 20th Anniversary celebration at the Lincoln Theater just around the corner, Ben and his team members at Story District hope that this commemorative event will offer audience members "an understanding and appreciation of this local arts organization. [I hope] they know that we've been here [and that] we've bootstrapped our way through these 20 years to make a lasting impact on our storytellers and our audiences."

When it comes to making one's own foothold in Washington, Ben recommends that students " connect with work colleagues at your internship at a meaningful level, and contribute as much as you can." Indeed, while partaking in the Foreign Policy concentration, Ben was encouraged by Professor Christian Maisch to make those meaningful connections with folks at the Inter-American Development Bank, an organization that Professor Maisch himself used to work. Similar to his internship position he had at the Inter-American Foundation, "there is certainly a community development aspect to what I do now," he explains.

In an international and multicultural hub like Washington DC, living, learning, and interning here as a student is an unmatched opportunity. For Ben, such an opportunity brought it him to love the concept of sharing and listening to diverse individuals stories. In the case of Story District's 20th Anniversary performance, it's "a chance for our audience members to step outside of themselves, and it's a chance for our storytellers to present their experience in a really real and honest way."

"[At Story District], we're entertainers first," Ben continues. "Maybe they'll laugh, maybe they'll cry; but at the end, event-goers hopefully will have spent their night well."

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Whether it be through its accredited certificates for working professionals or through its mentorship and internship programs for undergraduates, the School of Professional & Extended Studies (SPExS) provides world-class experiential learning for individuals across all stages of their career. To learn more about how the programs at SPExS can help students enhance practical skillsets at critical junctures in their careers, visit our website at http://www.american.edu/spexs/.