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When a photo like this comes across the Communications office Inbox, we’ve just got to know more! Derek Rhodes is a Durham Academy alumnus and currently a senior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy with double minors in Political Science and Spanish. This summer, Derek was selected to serve in the prestigious and highly competitive White House Internship Program, where he was lucky enough to cross paths and chat with none other than the President of the United States. We asked Derek for a behind-the-scenes description of his VIP encounter and life working at the White House.
Q: What kind of work did you do over the course of the internship?
Derek Rhodes: This summer, I worked in the President's Office of Scheduling and Advance. The office is responsible for forming the President's daily schedule - minute by minute - and figuring out all logistics behind those movements. I assisted the staff by assisting members of the press who wished to travel with the President.
During my time, I assisted in vetting new media sources who wished to travel on a particular trip and assisted in figuring out the logistics for getting credentialed press members to and from each point of the President's visit. During my first two weeks on the job, the President traveled to Brussels, Poland and France, so it was definitely a learning experience right away in terms of seeing just how complex making these arrangements can be. On the day of an appearance, the team was there to set up and ensure that all logistics, requests, and tasks had been executed.
Q: Tell us the story behind meeting President Obama. It looks like maybe you happened to run into him in the hallway?
DR: The photo with the President was not planned, so it was certainly a huge honor to speak with him for a few minutes and for him to offer to take a photo. I was in a conversation with a few senior staff officials backstage after the President's remarks at a particular event and funnily enough, the President walked up and joined in the conversation! I was waiting for him to tell me to leave, but he really did want to talk and get to know this intern who had been around for a few months. He even offered me some advice. It was a true honor to see the genuine interest he takes in people.
Q: Describe a typical day. What was the most challenging part of your job?
DR: Interestingly, there was no "typical" day; that is to say that no single day was similar to another one I had. Certainly the work ethic, the pace of the entire office, and caffeine intake were constants!
I would generally start my morning very early and begin by having a cup of coffee and reading every news article in nearly every major print news source (I normally skipped the Opinions pages). We reviewed all requests for the President's appearance. Any time an appearance by the President was confirmed, we began meeting right away. A day with only three meetings this summer was a light day!
One of the most interesting facets of working at the White House and my department in particular was that we were very responsive to what was going on in the world. We never knew when the President would have to go somewhere or what meeting would really need to be scheduled prior to another. It truly does depend on what is going on in the country at that time.
The most challenging part of the job was not always being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The White House obviously deals with every major issue going on in the world and the United States and every move is critiqued. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing - it certainly seemed to be a motivator for hard work, accuracy, and effectiveness. It was mostly the fact that on some days, reading the newspaper was a bit harder than other days. There are so many issues and problems around the world competing for the President's time or attention. You want to help everyone and you wish that he could go everywhere.
Q: Television audiences have watched fictionalized versions of what it's like to work in the White House thanks to "The West Wing" or "House of Cards." How did reality measure up in comparison to pop culture representations?
DR: Although I enjoy every single episode of “House of Cards”, I must say that “The West Wing” most closely mirrors what really goes on day to day. “The West Wing”, I think, does a great job of showing the interconnectedness of all of the different staffers and offices. One really does not work or make decisions without the other. You can really see the President walk around at any time and yes, the rooms are really that small!
Q: Overall, what was your internship experience like?
DR: An unbelievable experience! There was a never a day that I was not amazed by or in awe of the fact that I walked into the White House each day, or that staffers worked tirelessly day in and day out. The Administration, and my supervisor in particular, really valued the work of the interns and were overwhelmingly supportive of us and took a keen interest in our professional development.
Q: Do you hope to go into politics or government as a career? If not, what are your plans?
DR: I would love to work in (Washington) D.C. in politics someday. The experience at the White House energized me and reassured me that I would very much enjoy a career in public service. I will be applying to law school this fall, but have not ruled out heading straight to work in D.C. There's a lot of work to do!
During his time at Duke, Derek has served as Student Body Vice President in Duke Student Government where he expanded community relations programs and served as a resource student-led initiatives centered around local city engagement. Following his sophomore year, Derek interned at the United States Department of Justice in the Public Affairs Office. Outside of Duke Student Government, Derek serves as one of the head managers for the Duke Men's Basketball team. In this capacity, he is responsible for assisting in the daily operations of the team and travels with the team throughout the entire season.