The Insider’s Guide to the White House Internship Program: An Interview with Charlie Harned

Nations & States Co-Founder Luke Drabyn sat down with Charlie Harned, current student body president at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, about his experience interning at the White House in the National Economic Council (NEC) during the Spring 2015 semester.

LD: Prior to your internship experience at the White House, what kind of experiences (academic, extracurricular, or professional) did you have that you believe made you stand out among the crowd of applicants? And looking back, what types of experiences did the typical White House intern have under his or her belt?

CH: I think all White House interns would tell you there is an element of luck to the selection process. There are so many more qualified applicants than available positions. That said, I think anything that demonstrates a strong work ethic is important. For example, I am especially passionate about education policy. After my freshman year of college, I founded a nonprofit, the Anything Is Possible Education Foundation (AIPEF), which provides free ACT tutoring and awards an annual college scholarship to high school students in Knox County, Illinois. During the phone interview, we talked about AIPEF and several White House education initiatives.

I don’t think there is a typical White House intern. My story is different than those of all the other 150 or so interns from the Spring 2015 internship—our class had everyone from a sophomore in college to a former Rhodes Scholar. It is important to be authentic. As clichéd as it may sound, being genuine on the application is the best advice I can give to someone applying for a White House internship.

LD: What did a typical day look like for you? What was the work culture like? What were the best and worst aspects of the job?

CH: I lived near Union Station, which is a few metro stops away from the White House, so I would wake up around 7:00 to shower, eat breakfast, and get to work around 8:30. We would work until lunch—there are some really good places to eat near the White House—then after eating we would be back at it until it was time to leave.

All the interns in the National Economic Council worked under one or two White House staff members. The staffers I worked with were incredibly hard-working and passionate. They really served as inspirations for me during the internship. When your supervisors work so hard and care so much, you can’t do your job half-heartedly. That said, the experience was not simply work, work, work. I made some lifelong friends in D.C. and was able to experience a lot of the city as well.

The White House Internship Program puts on a number of events for the interns. There is a speaker series throughout the internship. We heard from some incredible staff members, and I was lucky enough to introduce U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. She is a huge role model to me and introducing her is something I will remember forever. Sometimes the work would be grueling, but I tried my best to be positive and proactive during the whole internship experience.

LD: There are many popular shows on television—from House of Cards and Veep to The West Wing and Scandal—that portray what working and living in the nation’s capital is like. If you were to pick an appropriate show that accurately reflects life and work in D.C. from your experience working at the White House, what would it be? Why?

CH: Well, the only one of those shows I watch religiously is The West Wing. I had never watched it before coming to D.C. and everyone told me it was a must. I am on Season 6 right now and am totally engrossed. I cannot speak to the veracity of the day-to-day tasks of the characters like Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman, but the set and the language they use is spot on. Having interned with the National Economic Council, it is really neat watching The West Wing and hearing something like, “The president has a meeting with the NEC.”

LD: What kind of advice would you give students or recent graduates looking to apply for the White House Internship Program? Where can individuals go to find more information about it?

CH: The White House Internship Program official website has a ton of great information. They have descriptions of the different offices you can apply to and have the timeline for the application process. I highly recommend connecting with a former or current White House intern and speaking with them about it. They would be able to give good pointers and insight into the whole process. I did not speak with anyone prior to submitting my application and I think it showed. For example, I addressed my policy proposal directly to the president. That can be fine in certain cases, but my proposal would have been better suited if addressed to a staff member who oversees higher education initiatives.

LD: The White House Internship Program is unpaid and Washington, D.C. is expensive. How did the interns who were unable to self-finance the internship find alternative sources of funding?

CH: First, you should apply to scholarships from your school, program, anywhere. I was not able to self-finance the internship, so alternative funding was a must for me. I worked with my college to make the internship happen. I ended up remaining enrolled in school while earning credit for the internship and for two off-campus independent study projects. I had my room and board payment reimbursed and that helped cover most of the living expenses.

My biggest expenditure was housing. This was my first time going to D.C. and I did not know much about housing there, so I went with convenience and found a place to stay through a D.C. intern housing program. Some of the other interns at the White House had previous experience in D.C. and knew how to find cheaper places to live. I also tried to lower costs of other things like food and entertainment.

LD: Finally, what does the future hold for you and your fellow White House colleagues? What are you, and they, doing after graduation?

CH: Some of my friends from the internship got jobs and stayed on at the White House. One of my close friends is now doing Teach For America. Another former intern is out in California working for a start-up. I received a Fulbright grant to go teach English in Madrid, Spain next year, which I am really excited about. After the Fulbright, I am planning on going to law school. I think “change agent” has become somewhat of an overused term, but that really does describe the interns I worked with. They are all so talented and passionate about making a difference and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for them. 

Image: The White House. (Johanna Madjedi/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Charlie Harned is currently serving as student senate president at Knox College, where he is majoring in political science and minoring in economics. In 2013, Charlie founded the Anything Is Possible Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making college more accessible to the underserved students of Knox County, Illinois. After graduation, Charlie will be in Madrid, Spain on a Fulbright grant teaching English.

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