Bowie State University Student Recalls White House Experience
By Tia Camphor
Like thousands of college students, Cynthia Gross spent her summer toiling away in an obscure office, just another intern in a sea of summer hires. But unlike her peers, Gross spent her days in White House Office of Presidential Correspondence, steps from the leader of the free world. Gross is a senior English major with a concentration in language and literature. She recalled her once in a lifetime experience in an interview with The Spectrum.
Spectrum: What was the name of the program?
Gross: I applied for the White House Public Service Leadership Internship Program, a full- time, unpaid internship from early June through mid August. Although I was contacted and interviewed by the selection committee of the Office of Management and Administration, I was not accepted into the program. However, I, as did a number of other internship applicants because of the overwhelming response to the president's program initiative, chose to apply as a volunteer with the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence.
Spectrum: How long were you there?
Gross: I volunteered with the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence for the month of August 2009.
Spectrum: What prompted you to volunteer?
Gross: I typically use my summers to do something constructive that I would not have as much time to do during the academic year. When one of my friends in the United States Air Force informed me of this valuable opportunity to volunteer for the White House, I was eager to apply. I viewed this prospect as a challenge and a chance for me to sharpen my professional leadership and communication skills. Most importantly, however, I wanted to be an active part of President Obama's historical presidency.
Spectrum: How did you feel when you arrived at the work site?
Gross: Initially, I felt somewhat intimidated by the experience. In order to get to the Office of Presidential Correspondence, I had to commute from my house to D.C. and navigate the streets to find the office building using a map that seemed either dated or inaccurate, both of which I was not accustomed to doing. I found the city very loud and busy. However, as I grew familiar with the commute, it became less unnerving. Additionally, the presidential staff working in the office immediately dispelled any doubt, uncertainty, and timidity that I had concerning whether I belonged. Honestly, I have never worked with such a friendly, supportive, fostering, and amiable staff. Everyone made me, and the rest of the volunteers, feel like an invaluable asset who was welcome and needed.
Spectrum: What did you do while you were there?
Gross: The White House Office of Presidential Correspondence receives and responds to the overwhelming amount of mail addressed to the president. As a volunteer, I either assisted with the Comment Line, an audio telephone network, where I was responsible for answering, documenting, and responding to the comments and concerns of the American people or with the coding, organization, and management of the standard paper mail addressed to the president that included greetings, proposals, advice, gifts, invitations, photographs and other artwork, comments, and critique from various national and international private and official citizens, companies, and students. Volunteers attended several training sessions in order to prepare for the process and to learn how to respond professionally to the concerns of the American people because even though we were volunteers, we represented and were spokespeople for the president and the rest of his administration.
Spectrum: Did you meet anybody while you were there?
Gross: Of course, I met a lot of individuals, both professionals and volunteer students, some of whom were a part of President Obama's election campaign. If you mean did I meet the president, vice president, first lady, or other elected official who is a part of President Obama's administration, I did not. Actually, the president was frequently on travel, both in and out of the country, and thus not always in D.C. White House interns and some of the student and adult volunteers had the opportunity to listen to speeches of senior staff members, but my travel and commute arrangements typically precluded me from being able to attend these events. At the end of the summer, I was invited to go on a White House tour and accepted the invitation. Although some of the staff said that individuals occasionally see a senior member of the administration during the tour, I did not. I believe the president was on travel on the day of my tour.
Spectrum: What did you learn while you were there?
Gross: It was a rewarding experience to be immersed in a community of scholars, both professional and student, who I could learn from. I was also reminded of the enormous amount of work, attention, time, and dedication that staff members provide behind the scenes of any professional organization. Furthermore, after receiving and responding to the concerns of various Americans and interacting with other volunteers, interns, and White House staff, I realized that although human beings are in many ways different, we are, ironically, in many ways the same.
Spectrum: Would you do it again?
Gross: Definitely - without a doubt.