Most of the tasks given to interns do not inspire pride. Whether getting coffee for the boss or making copies for a meeting, it's a first taste of the daily grind -- though perks and future advantages may be included.
White House intern Monique Dorsainvil discovered this at the 2009 Christmas Press Party, where she was assigned to transport bags from one room to another. As the president and first lady took photos with guests, Monique found herself clutching 15 bags. In this moment of desperation, looking up from her carefully balanced totes, she saw President Obama look over and flash her a big smile.
"The smile was so endearing because it was a sympathy smile and a 'I've been where you are' smile," she said. "It was the type of smile that said, 'I have been someone's assistant, I have been in the background, but if you keep working hard, everything will fall into place.' "
For the 100 interns selected every term out of a pool of 6,000, menial work like being "the bag girl" is accompanied by unique opportunities and an experience of a lifetime.
Dorsainvil, a 2009 women's studies graduate of Emory University, was placed in the Office of the First Lady last fall. Her primary task was to read, sort, process and respond to constituent letters -- hundreds of them every week. She also worked with the office's deputy director to coordinate volunteer work and assisted with the First Lady Social Office on such events as the RFK Human Rights Awards and the state dinner for India's prime minister.
All of these events helped Dorsainvil understand the qualities of effective leadership and gain an appreciation for the work of members of each department of the White House. "My time interning at the White House was exhilarating and enlightening," she said. "Walking through the White House and attending meetings with top East Wing staff members was eye opening." On top of the leadership-building activities, she also had the opportunity to be in the Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year photo shoot with the first lady and six other East Wing interns (Monique is pictured
second from left).
Dorsainvil was short of breath when she first found out she received the coveted internship. After recovering from the shock, she spent the rest of the day smiling, thinking about working for the first lady.
"As a women's studies major I was particularly thrilled to have been placed in my office of choice: the Office of the First Lady," she said. "As an African-American lesbian, this opportunity was not only a success for me but for the multiple communities that I am proud to belong to."
Christian Peele never expected her work in grassroots and non-profit political initiatives would lead to an internship in the White House. "The program is incredibly prestigious and being selected to be part of it was at once humbling and empowering," she said. "Though I was excited, I think it was even more powerful for my parents -- neither of whom had ever even toured the White House, much less thought about one of their children working there."
Peele, a 2008 graduate from the Duke Divinity graduate program, interned in the Office of Management and Administration, also in the fall of 2009. She worked closely with the public service component of the D.C. Scholars Program, a newly formed internship program teaching high school students about the workings of the executive branch. From office time spent ensuring the interns and partners in the community were kept informed to work outside the White House with educators at various public high schools in Washington, Peele was constantly on the move and busy with managerial tasks. "No matter the setting, each day's work required lots of energy, creativity, insight and help from all those on the team," she said.
Peele said she took great pride in knowing that her small contribution added to the success of an administration she strongly supported. Even departmental staff meetings had a strong impact. "It was inspiring and motivating to gather with the staff of my department and hear about the projects and programs they were creating and developing. . . . Hearing from my colleagues always confirmed that we were offering our individual time and energies for the good of a much greater cause, a cause that could only be achieved collectively."
For Dorsainvil and Peele, the highlight of their time working at the White House was their interactions with First Lady Michelle Obama. "Meeting Mrs. Obama was just thrilling," said Dorsainvil, "[Michelle] Obama is so warm, intelligent, and personable and really goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable and safe when you are around her. She has a very positive attitude and an excellent sense of humor. I really feel honored to have interned in her office and contribute to the excellent work she does for our country."
One of the requirements for the internship is "a commitment to public service and demonstrated leadership in the community." Both women said that they left the program knowing that they will be better public servants as they draw from the passion and commitment of the very people they supported in the White House.