Harvard FAS Office of Career Services

Working in the White House: Harvard Interns


Have you ever watched The West Wing and imagined yourself as a cast member? You’re not the only one. Harvard students Victoria Wenger ’14 and John Chen ’12 had a similar dream when they applied for the White House Internship Program, a program for undergraduate students in Washington, D.C (specifically, for U.S. citizens who are 18 years old and currently enrolled in college). On Wednesday, February 29, these two Harvard students spoke at OCS to describe their experiences as interns and impart wisdom about the application process for this prestigious program.

Both Victoria and John described this unpaid internship as one of “public service in every sense of the word.” Their semester-long experiences working in a government office was more rewarding and influential than either of them had ever expected. First, they listed the different departments that accept interns through the program, ranging from the Office of Cabinet Affairs to the Office of the Vice President. While John explained that some are more competitive to score an internship with than others, he acknowledged that the work in any of the offices varies greatly day-to-day. For example, Victoria’s position working in the Office of the Vice President tagged her as a “correspondence” intern, which consisted of typical intern tasks like reading constituent mail, using excel, and doing projects for the Vice President. Although she recognized this work as “not glamorous or intellectually stimulating” it was rewarding because of the politically charged environment in which she was working. One image Victoria repeatedly emphasized was the incredible feeling of walking through the Northwest Gate of the White House grounds every morning and passing by Secret Service and thousands of people peering in from outside the gates. “It is an amazing feeling to see all of those people walking by and remember you are the one walking through the gates,” she gushed.

Coincidentally, John and Victoria both happened to work in the same Office of the Vice President during different semesters – but John made a plug for the great experience he had working in this office as well. “It’s one of the best kept secrets of the White House, because nobody thinks to apply to it,” he said, encouraging students especially interested in policy to apply to it. “The Office of the Vice President is a microcosm of what goes on in the Office of the President. There are fewer people in the office, so you get a lot more access to the senior staff.”

However, office work is not the only component of this internship. As part of the White House staff, interns are called upon to lead tours and volunteer at White House events like dinners or seasonal activities like staff trick-or-treating (“Dr. Biden showed up in a bear costume,” laughed Victoria). White House interns also have a weekly speaker series, that is “so interesting and cool” because a variety of high profile people lead candid talks about life or job advice. Additionally, Victoria volunteered regularly in D.C. public schools.

Though the application process for this internship is extensive, Victoria explained that it weeds out any applicants only half-heartedly interested in the program: “You know all of the interns in the program are really, really committed.” She advised applicants to emphasize a commitment to service in their application, as well as to demonstrate an awareness of what goes on in the department for which they are applying.

“This program is not looking for superstar applicants, or people who are going to revolutionize the way the White House works,” she said. “They want people who are going to work tirelessly and humbly to serve their country.”

Julia Eger, ’14