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Shifting Identities: Paralympian and International Development

June 29, 2017

by  Chuck Aoki

Young man smile at camera

Chuck Aoki

My road to the USICD internship program has been non-traditional, to say the least. Having spent the last eight years of my life playing for wheelchair rugby for the U.S. National team, I’ve come to reflect on a few things. First and foremost, it is an honor and a privilege to be part of something so incredible as the Paralympic movement. I’ve made memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. And don’t worry everyone, I’m not done just yet. The other reflections are a bit harder to admit, however.

When I began graduate school this past fall, at the University of Minnesota, I was nervous to talk about my Paralympic career too much. I knew that I would have to discuss it some, since my wonderful professors and school leadership allowed me to start a bit late due to my being in Rio, but I was worried about allowing it to define me. This might seem odd, given that rugby had defined my entire life up until that point, and still largely does to this day. But I wanted to be taken seriously. I’ve always had a passion for policy, governance, and international affairs, broadly speaking. But for so long, my life had been consumed by a sport that I love dearly, but had not allowed me to pursue my other passions. I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent playing rugby, not in the slightest. But pursuing it meant setting other things aside.

What all this added up to then, was a fear that my graduate school career, and thus my professional one as well, would always be defined by my sport. Was this an irrational fear? Luckily, it was. I have felt so at home at the Humphrey School, where I have made incredible friends and been taught by outstanding professors. I can’t wait to get back home, and have another great year there.

Starting my internship on the other hand, brought about a whole new set of worries. Going from smashing into people daily, to sending emails and reading reports is not a transition most make. It’s fortunate that I have managed to be civilized so far, and I have enjoyed my work greatly. However, there’s still days, although not as much anymore, where I look at myself, and say, do I belong here? Trading one identity for another is hard some days. I love being in the professional world, learning at my internship, and getting a chance to see what my future could look like. But that future means losing part of my other identity, one that has been with me for a long, long time. I’m certainly not looking for any sympathy here, I know that I am coming from a privileged position as a Paralympian. Expressing these feelings through writing helps me to understand them better though, and allows me to be more and more comfortable with the idea of letting some things go in life. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of what the world has to offer.

I’ll close by just saying how honored I am to be spending the summer in Washington D.C., with the USICD internship program, interning at the National Democratic Institute. After so many years representing our country across the world, coming home and working in our nation’s capital could not be more fitting. The last eight years have been simply tremendous. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next eight.

Chuck Aoki is a member of the 2017 cohort of the USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  he and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program and other topics, to be posted at this blog during the summer.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  The internship program was enabled by funding support from  the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation(MEAF). Chuck Aoki is completing his internship at the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2017 program.  Or read blog posts by other current and past interns. The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD, MEAF, or NDI


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