Will Brown ’17 is accustomed to the panoramic view from the Heights, with Central New York stretched out before him. This semester, though, that view changed sharply. Brown traded his seat in the classroom for a seat in the White House, where he spent four months working as an intern. A dual major in finance and business analytics, Brown was one of only 166 college students selected from approximately 6,000 applicants to work in the White House during the fall 2016 semester. He reflected upon his time there, what the experience taught him about what it means to be an American in the 21st century, and his plans for the future.
What did it feel like to walk into the White House for the first time?
On the very first day of the internship, I walked through the gates and looked straight at the West Wing, where I could see the vice president's motorcade. That was a “pinch me” moment and the moment it actually sunk in that I was a White House intern.
Walking into the White House for the first time was a jaw-dropping experience. I couldn’t help but think about all of this history that has happened in that building. I thought about all of the presidents who have served the country, and it was amazing to be standing in the same room that Thomas Jefferson or John F. Kennedy once did.
Where were you assigned to work, and what were your primary responsibilities?
I was an intern in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, and more specifically a member of the emails team where I managed the economic portfolio. Our role was to read and respond to all Americans writing to President Obama through our email platform and Facebook. I also helped respond to high-priority and sensitive correspondences, and gave East Wing tours to letter writers. Being in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, I also had a hand in selecting the 10 letters the president reads and personally responds to each day.
I also had the benefit of attending some pretty cool events through the internship. I went to the arrival ceremony on the South Lawn when Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came to Washington. I was also able to staff South by South Lawn, a festival celebrating technology, innovation, science and entrepreneurship. There, I saw President Obama, Academy Award-winner Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam Savage from the TV show MythBusters. I heard Lumineers play a small concert, and I stood next to musician Macklemore.
What was the most important lesson you learned during your internship, and how will you apply it throughout the rest of your life?
The most important lesson I learned was to remember to always take a step back, and think about what really matters – try to understand where people are coming from, why they believe in what they believe or do what they do. Most of the time, it is not people purposefully being hateful or mad or ignorant. What it often comes down to is someone being at his wit’s end, someone managing all he can bear, and he does not know where to turn next. It is easy to write someone off, but the truth is that I don’t know what he’s had to live through or what difficult decisions he may have had to make.
Moving forward, I will always avoid making pre-judgments of others and do all I can for a person, even if I don’t necessarily agree with him. Vice President Biden has said that “you can question someone’s judgment, but not his motives” because you don’t know what someone’s motives are and that you should “try to look beyond the caricature of the person.” Being in the Office of Correspondence, I was surrounded by these situations every day. It is easy for me to pass over an email and not take the time to thoroughly understand the writer, or immediately discredit his assessment of an issue or situation. But to the writer, a response from the president may change his day, week or life. I also often ponder how desperate and distraught people must be to turn to the president of the United States to ask for help with very personal issues.
How did the experience shape your plans for the future and what you see as possible, both for yourself and the world?
Being at the White House certainly renewed my passion and aspiration for holding elected office one day and having a career related, in some way, to policy. Specifically, I’m intrigued by economic policy though, throughout my time at Le Moyne and the White House, I have learned to be resilient and flexible, because most of the time things do not go the way I expected. Seeing the federal government up close and viewing the country and world through the lens of both the American people and the presidency, I cannot help but be hopeful for the world. We have amazing, talented and passionate people running our country who want to make a difference.
What did working at the White House teach you about what it means to live a useful, satisfying and meaningful life?
The White House taught me that you have to find a purpose. David Simas, assistant to the president and director of political strategy and outreach, was one of the most inspiring people I have ever heard speak. He described finding your “north star” and “[finding] your why.” If you’re doing something that is related to that “north star” or that “why,” then you’ll enjoy work and you’ll get the most out of life.
How did your time in Washington inform your view of what it means to be an American in the 21st century?
Being an American in the 21st century is wonderful, but we also have some serious issues to face. For example, we have the benefit of internet and digital technology, but we also have to face the fact that technology can be used as a weapon or to spread lies, and it also removes much of the human-to-human interaction of our lives. Living in the 21st century, we need to find ways to minimize the downsides to these aspects of our lives.
Why is it important for citizens – particularly men and women your age – to be politically engaged?
My generation in particular has to be politically engaged .Why? Because what our elected officials decide over the next few years will effect us for the next 50 years. We have a beautiful gift that most people in the world do not, and that is the ability to vote in free elections. We have to take advantage of this ability to influence change directly. It is not good enough to sit back and say, “My vote doesn’t matter.” Sometimes I think that those of my generation who are natural born citizens of the United States become lax and forget just how lucky we are to be able to vote. Don’t let someone make your decisions for you. Go out and vote because you can never predict when your decision to stay home might change the course of the election, and in turn, decades of domestic or foreign policy.
If you had to identify the single most memorable moment of your internship, what would it be?
The most memorable moment of my internship relates to the presidential election. The Thursday after Election Day, the mood in the office was pretty solemn. During the final hour of work, our staffer, Greg, and all of the interns gathered on the couches in the corner of our office to share “legacy” letters – letters from Americans thanking the president for his policies and grace. Many of these letters were tearjerkers – from parents who lost their children in disasters and cancer patients whose lives were saved by the Affordable Care Act. That is a moment I will never ever forget.
How would you complete the following statements?
The greatest challenge facing my generation is … finding a way to be open minded and to avoid the polarization of partisan politics and ideology. Sure, my generation is substantially more open minded about diversity and inclusion than others, but I feel that my generation lacks a willingness to work with the other side and buys far too much into Democratic or Republican or Liberal or Conservative labels. You can’t always get what you want or, as my elementary school principal, Sister Harriet, would say, “Who ever told you life was fair?”
Positive change begins with … reflection. You need to take stock of your situation and reflect on the positives and negatives to find areas of improvement. Once you know what change you’d like to make, you have to understand that change occurs in incremental steps, not leaps and bounds.
Leadership means … leading by example. Great leaders can be great orators and inspiring, but that isn’t very effective if the leader does not practice what he or she preaches. Leadership also means understanding that if you have not led by example, realizing this and making the appropriate corrections and learning from the experience. There is immense value in having a leader who understands adversity and has had to overcome struggles.