July 11th, 2012
Before heading to Harvard for his undergraduate degree, Bethesda, MD native Andrew Wyner decided to spend part of his gap year working at POGO as a research associate. Since January, Andrew has pursued research on contract oversight for a POGO report, written about a Russian defense contractor, and delved into financial oversight issues.
The Watercooler chatted with Andrew about filing Freedom of Information Act requests, learning Italian, and eating Kit Kat bars on top of the world.
Watercooler: Living in Bethesda, what’s it like getting to work?
Andrew Wyner: I am an avid user of the fantastic metro system, and I also take a bus to get to the metro station, so it’s almost an hour commute to work. But I do it because I love POGO.
Watercooler: What made you decide to take a gap year?
AW: I’d been looking into the idea of taking a gap year a lot, and I had some friends who had actually taken gap years in the past and strongly advocated for it, so I started looking into it more seriously and saw some programs that looked really interesting … I was pretty burned out at the end of high school, and there’s nothing like taking a year off to sort of rejuvenate yourself and get to explore new things. I had lived right outside D.C. my entire life and had never done political internships or anything of that sort, even though that was something I was very interested in.
Watercooler: What’s been your favorite project that you’ve worked on at POGO?
AW: My favorite individual blog post would be something I wrote a few weeks ago on Rosoboronexport. Basically, it’s a blog about this Russian contractor that the United States has a $1 billion contract with, and this contractor has contracts with Syria, has done business with Iran, and was sanctioned for four years. Right when we were putting this out, this issue was right at the center of attention of a lot of senators. We were sitting on this article that we had, and we were able to put it out and add new perspective to it.
Right when I started, I filed 100 FOIA requests as part of a project with [former Director of Investigations Nick Schwellenbach]. Since then, Keith [POGO Director of Operations] has referred to me as the FOIA king. … I had no idea about any of that kind of stuff before I got here.
Watercooler: You spent the first part of your gap year in Siena, Italy. What was it like living with an Italian family who spoke no English?
AW: It was very difficult at first. Right when I got there, they spoke literally not a word of English, and I didn’t speak a word of Italian, except for like “pizza,” “spaghetti” … and so all I had was my little guidebook. I was sitting there at dinner with a sticky note flipping through pages for individual words and scribbling them down. We immediately started the third day we were there with classes … because most of us were starting from scratch. Being immersed in the language the way we were—we really tried not to speak much English at least in our houses and in school—it became much easier after the first week. I ended up being able to have great conversations with my family.
Watercooler: What was your favorite place that you visited in Italy?
AW: There’s an area called Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre means “five lands,” and it’s five towns on the Mediterranean coast, and they’re perched up in the mountains. The towns are very colorful, so you can see them from high up, overlooking the sea.
We went there for two days, and the second day, my friend and I just spontaneously took the train to the sixth town, which is way far back, and did a hike from there to the last town. You come over this mountain that sort of sticks out, and you can see all five towns, and you’re 1,500 feet in the air, and you feel like you’re on top of the world. I had a Kit Kat bar, and I was sitting on the top of the world eating my Kit Kat bar. It was an incredible view and just one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.
Watercooler: How have your experiences at POGO influenced your future plans?
AW: I’m not sure I will eventually go into a career in any kind of politics-related thing. Being here firsthand has given me a really unique perspective into the way D.C. works and this country’s system of politics, but I’m not exactly sure. I have to get through college first. I’m definitely interested in economics. I’m interested in literature. … I’m really excited to just take a wide array of classes and see where my interests fall.