In the fall of 2014, senior Communications studies student Opal Vadhan embarked on a journey that would change her life. She had been selected to take part in the White House Internship Program. As Vadhan explains, “she had to pack up her life, and move to D.C. in one week.” The Pace Press sat down with Vadhan to get the details of how she was able to participate in one of the most competitive internship programs in the country.
The Pace Press: You were a Communications Superstar, then you left to DC to go the White House. How did that happen?
Opal Vadhan: It was never a part of my plan, which I think is super important to let people know. I never thought I was qualified for politics. I didn’t think I had the tough skin, I didn’t think I was smart enough or knew enough. And it kind of just wasn’t a part of my plan. As someone who plans everything, this was a huge risk that I just went for. I used to intern at MSNBC and one of the producers who worked there was former White House Intern. And she was like “you know what, you should apply. I loved it you should apply.” I looked online and saw articles that said that everyone was from Yale, Cornell, Harvard from all these IVY league schools, or they had someone who donated to a campaign and that’s how they got it. I didn’t think I was smart enough, and my family definitely did not have the money to donate to a campaign, but she had put the idea in my head. So I reached out to someone I had met when I was 17, while I was working as a sales associate at Lacoste. Her name is Val. She came to shop one day and she was working in the finance department for a Senator. I dressed her for an event and she was like “thank you for your help, here’s my card, stay in touch.” We emailed back and forth a few times, and I connected with her on Linkedin. Fast-forward to few years later, I was on her LinkedIn said saw she was a former White House intern. So years later, I reached back out to her through LinkedIn, I was like “Hey Val, I hope you are doing well. I want to know if you have any advice because I’m thinking of applying to The White House Internship Program. So she replied and was like “oh my gosh, you have to apply. You would be wonderful. It was one the best things I’ve done.” So I felt like it was two different people telling me to do this so I thought, ‘let me just try.’ Even it wasn’t for Val’s push, I don’t think I would’ve even applied. And it just shows the power of networking, and also social networks that 4 years later, I was able to connect with her.
So I did the application, it took me forever. Definitely, the toughest application I’ve ever done. I submitted it a minute before the deadline. It just felt like weight off my shoulders. I didn’t hear anything for a while there was a lot of waiting game, and then I got an email for an interview (which I was shocked that I even got a response), I took a test and then still didn’t hear anything. I did the security forms, but I still did not hear back. In July I had found out I got wait listed which was fine. I was glad I was even getting interviewed and made it this far. In my head wait-listed meant you didn’t get it but it was no big deal. I had already secured an internship with NBC’s Nightly News in the fall, I was going to be an RA again, and my classes were lined up for the fall. On September 5th, I remember waking up and I check my email every morning while I am in bed and it said that it said, “you’ve been accepted!” I read the White House Internship Program and the tears just started flowing, I was like ‘Oh my god this isn’t real!’ And I also thought what am I going to do? Instead of being so happy and proud of myself, I just didn’t know what to do. And I had to give them a decision by the 8th, so it was only two days. So I thought how do I just pick up and leave. My life was settled, I was moved into my dorm and met my residents, I had started classes, I was going to start my internship this week, and all my other commitments were in line. But I packed my things up, and headed to Washington D.C. on September 14th. And on September 15th, was the first day I walked into the White House and started my journey there.
TPP: What exactly did you do at the White House?
OV: I was an intern in the Office of Communications. I just started watching The West Wing, and if anyone watches The West Wing, it’s a little bit like that without all the television drama. Its very fast paced, very driven. Anything that is released by the White House comes from the communications office So any statements that come from the President come from our office. If we have an event at the White House, our office handles the media aspect. We hosted a ConnectEd , Early Education Summit, College Opportunity summit, or the Its On Us Campaign, are few of the events that our office worked on. Any speeches, its all under the Communications Office. President Obama just did a video with BuzzFeed, that is something our office does. We also how we handle media inquires, and answer questions from reporters and media outlets So we also put things out there, but we also answer to people out there. The Communications office aims to try and reach people where they are, not where they want them to be. So anything from the office, and anything people want to know from us. An example is the Free Community College policy that is something that the Communications office helps with messaging, and they released it through Facebook. And that video has over 8 million views, which is successful in my eyes. And #FreeCommunityCollege was trending on twitter. So news has progressed and changed over time, time has progressed and messaging has progressed. This is a President and administration that wants to reach people and they use communications very effectively to do that.
TPP: So how were your shifts?
OP: I would get there around 7am most days, and I would leave around 8, 9pm or later. Some days I would leave at 7:30pm, which was a treat. There were also days where I would leave at 10, or 11pm. I was there everyday, but the thing was I loved it. I’ve never felt so tired, but so professionally alive. My internship gave me a new purpose and meaning in my life.
There is so much I have learned, I feel so much more knowledgeable. And I felt like my duties of monitoring local and national news I could tell you what was going on in Rhode Island, or somewhere in Texas. I felt like I knew so much.
I felt everything I did mattered, and yeah I was just an intern but people counted on me to get this information. And the things we would do would go to hundreds of people in the White House. All the senior staff would get all these clips I’d pull or round ups I’d do everyday. Yeah it was tough, and I was on deadlines, and sometimes I didn’t know if I could do it but people were counting on me. And at the end of the day America needs these people working at The White house. I finally felt like I was making a difference, getting to help with these things in my small way.
TPP: Was this a paid internship?
OV: The White House Internship Program is unpaid, they don’t provide housing. But you do get a travel stipend, a smartcard, which is equivalent to a Metro card here in NYC. I always say you get as much as you give and putting these hours and not getting money, like yeah its tough I’m not going to lie specially for someone who pays for their schooling but I feel like I have gained so much. I’ve gained invaluable experience that I cant put a price on it. I have worked with some of the most brilliant, passionate, and hardworking people that I’ve ever met. And I was able to learn from them skills that I don’t think I’ll learn anywhere else. There were things I was able to do which I never even dreamed of. I was able to bring my family to The White House, and they saw the First Family depart to Hawaii from the South Lawn. Both my parents were immigrants, and they sacrificed their life in India to give me opportunities in America. So it was incredible feeling being able to do this for them. A lot of people are surprised to look at my resume and see that I’ve interned at the White House. And I definitely think that this is the best investment, I’ve made for not only my career but personally.