Liberal Arts in the Workplace Funding / White House Internship Summer 2016
Eleni Smitham ’19
Everything about this summer was kind of surreal. I remember the first day, walking up to the gate and expecting to be turned away by the Secret Service. But they let me in, and continued to let me in every single day for eleven weeks. Inside those gates I was given more responsibility and exposure to incredible work and people than I could have imagined. It was a privilege to be inside the gates of the White House, and to participate in effecting positive change.
I was there as a part of the White House Internship Program, which provides college and graduate students from all over the country with an opportunity to build leadership skills and gain unparalleled professional experience. Interns are introduced to the public sector, and I was surprised and grateful at the amount of responsibility my fellow interns and I were given.
I was fortunate to be working in the Presidential Personnel Office, which is the office that oversees the selection process for Presidential appointments. Staff in the Presidential Personnel Office recruit qualified candidates to best represent the interests of the President in departments and agencies across the Administration. My role was to communicate with candidates for political appointments. I worked with interns in my office on occasion, but was first and foremost a member of my team – a reality that I don’t think many interns elsewhere get to experience, and something that made my summer so much more fulfilling.
The White House Internship Program also emphasized building leadership skills outside of our own offices, and hosted weekly Speaker Series with the senior staff and officials of the White House, workshops to prepare us for the professional world, as well as programming targeted to specific interest areas. In these sessions, I was able to hear candid stories from significant figures in the White House and learn more about my interest areas of foreign policy and international development. The President even spent time with the intern group, and some of the excerpts of his talk can be seen here: www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2016/08/11/intern-qa-president-west-wing-week-special-edition.
One of my favorite aspects of the summer was that interns were able to participate in events that occurred at – or in affiliation with – the Executive Office of the President, such as the Congressional Picnic, the National Cancer Moonshot Summit, and the Singapore State Arrival Ceremony. Having the opportunity to attend each of these events was so valuable and demonstrated to me just how much this White House and this President work on such a diverse range of programs for the American people.
Outside of work hours, the Program also organized various volunteer opportunities in order to give back to the community in Washington, D.C. I was able to volunteer both with an advocacy organization that works to restore the Anacostia River, and nonprofit organizations that provide food and other services to vulnerable residents in the D.C. area. I was also lucky to volunteer in the White House vegetable garden, an element of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign to combat childhood obesity. I may have only been gardening, but I knew I was weeding and raking for the President.
This experience re-emphasized to me the importance of public service. This was by far the busiest, but also the most rewarding summer of my life. I learned how to communicate more effectively, how to lead more collaboratively, and even further developed my interest in supporting my local community. I learned that it really is okay to make mistakes, as long as they’re not stupid ones. Most importantly, I saw that there is a dedicated team of professionals in the government committed to promoting the best interests of the American people.
Towards the end of the summer, I corresponded with a former intern from my office, who told me to make the most of my time there because, pretty soon, I would be just like everyone else, standing on the outside of those gates and wonder what was going on inside. I keep reminding myself what an honor it was to serve the President. And even though I don’t know exactly what is happening inside right now, I am hoping to share what the program taught me about public service with the other communities I belong to.