On the most recent episode of Working, Slate’s Jacob Brogan talks to someone who worked at the White House, but with slightly less power—Chase Woods, former intern at the White House’s Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. While it’s true that plenty of college students experience internships, how many intern at the White House? Chase is about to enter his senior year of college, but before he heads back to hit the books, he sat down with Jacob to discuss what it was like working under some of the most powerful people in the nation.
In this episode, Chase talks about how he got his internship, what drew him to the opportunity, and what it was like living in D.C. as an intern. Also—which famous faces did he encounter during his time there?
And in this episode’s Slate Plus bonus segment, Woods sits down with another intern—Ian Philbrick, who spent his summer in Slate’s D.C. offices. They share tidbits of advice on interning in an expensive city as well as their thoughts on what makes a valuable internship experience.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working, we’ve been going to the White House, talking to some of the political veterans who operate within its walls about the particulars of their jobs. This week, however, we spoke to someone who was a little less familiar with the institution. Chase Woods, a rising senior at the University of Chicago, served as an intern at the White House this past summer.
He talked to us about how he found his way into that role and what he did during his time there. We spoke to him about everything from his daily decisions about where to eat lunch to the time he nerded out when he saw Merrick Garland in the hallway. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be one of the least powerful people in one of the most powerful places on Earth, this episode is for you. And in a Slate Plus extra, Woods chats with former Slate intern Ian Philbrick about what it’s like to intern in an expensive city full of transitory people.
If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, in addition to other great podcast exclusives. Start your free two-week trial of Slate Plus at Slate.com/workingplus.
Brogan: What is your name, and what did you do at the White House?
Chase Woods: So my name is Chase Woods, and I worked in the office of political strategy and outreach as an intern.
Brogan: How did you end up at the White House?
Woods: In the tail end of last fall, I was sitting at my school’s Institute of Politics, hearing an info session about the White House internship program, kind of thought it was a little bit out of my reach. But I thought, why not apply? After a series of interviews and background checks, and then applying for funding and trying to ration all the money I have, went down there this summer and was there for a little longer than three months or so.
Brogan: What made you want to work there?
Woods: Not to be overly personal or anything, but I’m like a young black man who wants to be in public service. And so obviously, Barack Obama is one of my idols. I still remember him being inaugurated. I was in eighth grade, and my social studies teacher being like, hold on, everyone has to watch this. Screw the lesson plan. We’re going to watch this right now. And so just him as a person and his administration has been pretty impactful for me. And so the fact that they were only having two classes of interns within the administration, I was like, you know what? I’m just going to swing for the fences, hope everything works out. And then here I am after doing it.
Brogan: So what were the applications or interviews like? What was that actual process that you went through just to get there in the first place?
Woods: The application itself is pretty standard. It asks like who you are, where you’ve been, what are your credentials, and then a series of like short-answer questions like, oh, if you had the chance to ask the chief of staff one question, what would it be or something like that? So they have a little more fun, little more flexible questions like that. And then there were, I believe, two essays that I had to write. And then sent that off, just kind of crossed my fingers.
Brogan: How long did you spend working on that?
Woods: Man, I probably spent like a week-and-a-half or two weeks or so, which feels like a lot. Like a lot of times, and especially just on campus, I feel like I sometimes leave things for the last minute. I’m like, oh, no, this is due in four hours. What do I do? But this is something I was really, really hoping I would get, and so I decided to put a little more time and effort into it. And then sent it off, crossed my fingers. I was saying my prayers every night. And then heard back maybe two months later, asking if I could interview the next day.
Brogan: Was that a phone interview?
Woods: It was a phone interview, yeah. It was funny. Actually, when I was telling my family like, oh, my god, I have an interview. They’re like, oh, so they’re flying you out? And I was like, no, no. They’re going to sit me down over the phone. And they’re like, oh, that’s kind of lame. Are you sure you want to do it? And I was like, yeah. And so sat down and talked for maybe like 45 minutes or an hour, a little bit more like about myself, why I wanted to apply for the internship, what my passions were, things like that.
Brogan: Who were you talking to there?
Woods: It was someone in the office. It wasn’t like a general, someone in like the internship office, but it was the office of political strategy and outreach that I was talking to. And so we talked. It seemed to go pretty well. And then kind of radio silence for a couple more weeks. And then I got an email saying like, hey, we haven’t picked you yet, but here’s some more additional documents for you to fill out. And then like a background check happened. And then got a conditional offer pending just compliance with the qualifications and rules of the internship program and, I believe, passing a drug test, which happened. And, yeah, yeah, here I am.
Brogan: So was it a paid internship?
Woods: It was not a paid internship, it was unpaid.
Brogan: Is that true for all White House internships?
Woods: I believe so. That is for all White House internships. You’re allowed to have outside sources of funding pending approval. So, thankfully, I was able to apply for a small stipend from my school, which covered my housing. But, otherwise, it is unpaid, and D.C. is expensive.
Brogan: It is, yeah. What was it like moving to D.C.? Had you ever lived here before? Had you ever spent time here before?
Woods: No, so I had never lived there, but I had visited when I was like 8 or something with the family. To be honest, when I was talking to my mom about applying to this, she’s like, oh, you’re going back to D.C. And I was like, what do you mean back? I barely remembered the trip. But, yeah, so I had never been here, didn’t really know what to expect, but was more than pleasantly surprised at what I found. It’s a really great town, lots to do, lots to see. There’s a lot of history on like every corner that you walk. So it was nice to walk and feel not a part of that history, but to kind of like be ghosted by that history, if you know what I mean.
But, yeah, this is a great city, unbearably hot. Everyone was telling me that it’s a disgusting swamp town, and for the most part that is accurate.
Brogan: How long were you here? Were you here in the summer then?
Woods: Yeah, so I was here the whole summer.
Brogan: So can you walk us through your first day, the actual whole process? What was it like going through the security gate the first time?
Woods: I know people from school who had interned here before. And they had told me a little bit about like first walking through the gates and this expectation of like it’s the best thing that’ll ever happen to you. And so it very much was, but at the same time it was like decently terrifying just because I was like, oh, no, I’m not supposed to be here.
Brogan: Did they issue a badge right away?
Woods: No, so I had to go through again just prove who I am and why I was there, and then I was provided a badge at a later date. And then said hi to Secret Service and things like that, all very nice dudes and ladies and people. Then walked through and it really started to hit me like, oh, my God, I’m actually standing near the White House. I am going to work here for the next 10 or 11 weeks. This is insane. And that kind of didn’t wear off for the first couple days just because it was like an oddly busy couple days.
I remember, I think it was like my second day, I had to walk over to the White House, and Derek Jeter was there doing something for My Brother’s Keeper. And so he walked by, and I remember thinking, man, that guy looks like Derek Jeter. And then I did a double-take, and I was like, Jesus Christ, that’s Derek Jeter. So the optics of just who walks through those doors kind of hit me for a really long time.
Then also Bernie Sanders was there, I think, that same day when he, I think, met with the president about the idea of endorsing Hillary or whatever, and he had his little press conference on the lawn. So that kind of took me off guard for that to be like my first couple days. But eventually after just doing the work for a while and getting into like the groove of things, it definitely started to become much more of a job and much more of business as usual.
Brogan: Did you interact with other interns? Were you the only one in your office, or was there a whole pool of people in your position?
Woods: So I was the only one in my office, but there are numerous interns in the various other offices, which at first I was like, oh, so it’s a little bit of a humble brag, like only intern in my office. But, boy, it was lonely. So I spent a lot of time by myself, and that kind of like propelled me to try and get to know a lot of the other interns with a cohort. And, yeah, that became like a very big part of the experience just meeting everybody, seeing where they come from, seeing what they’re passionate about, and trying to—and that’s another big part of the internship is that they really want to try and propel people to make relationships that’ll last outside of the White House, hoping that people will connect, whether that’s in a professional or personal capacity, for years to come.
Brogan: Where were you stationed in your time at the White House? Did you have an office, a desk, a cubicle?
Woods: Yeah, thank god it’s not a cubicle. I would’ve been so bored. So I was stationed in a small office with everyone else in my department in the EEOB, which is the Executive Eisenhower Building right next to the White House. That’s the one thing they don’t tell you. They don’t say, you’re not actually in the White House, which is fine. I’ll settle for being like 20 or 30 feet away. So I had my own desk, my own computer setup. I would shout to my supervisor like, oh, hey, how did you want this done? And she would peek her head out and be like, this is how you do it. But, yeah, so it was a pretty fairly normal setup.
Brogan: Was there a point at which it started to just feel like an office?
Woods: Yeah, I would say, like the first time I got bored, I was like—and I kind of caught myself. I was like, oh, man, God, today is just dragging. And then I was like, wait, I’m at the White House. How is this even possible? And so that was probably like the first moment, just like the first time that I caught myself not having anything to do or finishing my work early that day and just kind of allowing myself to get caught up in the feeling of just like wearing a suit and tie and feeling like I’m in an office. But whenever I needed to remind myself, I’d walk outside and be like, oh, okay, I’m not selling insurance right now or anything.
Brogan: You really just got to see the White House itself for where you work?
Woods: Yeah. So it’s situated where they have like the Navy steps, and my office was like right outside those doors. And so you would just walk out onto the Navy steps and be able to see the White House. That was a great walk.
Brogan: I think that when a lot of us think about the idea of White House internships, for good or for ill, we all remember one particularly benighted internship from the ‘90s. But I’m sure that there are other misconceptions or misunderstandings that people might have about what it’s like to intern at the White House. Were there any that you became conscious of, either when you were there or when you preparing to go, any kind of myths about it that you’d like to dispel?
Woods: So, actually, there’s one thing that actually I kind of like fell victim to was the idea that everyone who walked into this internship definitely went to Harvard and is someone who’s absolutely, 100 percent brilliant, super well-involved, and is just like this all-American dandy named Chip or whatever. But it’s not very much the case. The people that I met there were from all walks of life, low-income people, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, people who were veterans, people who came from the North, the South, black, white, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, like people from all over with very different experiences and very different things that they brought to the table. So I think that’s probably the biggest one. People see it as like this elitist thing where it very much didn’t feel like that when I was actually there.
Brogan: So what were your actual duties at the White House? What did you do for the White House in your internship?
Woods: So the mission of my office is to kind of like take the political temperature of the country and then advise the administration on like how policy should be delivered or packaged or like what initiatives to take, things like that. So I played a very small role in that. A lot of what I did was like basic research, looking at blogs, looking at polling data, things like that, and trying to relay that in a series of reports to my supervisors and higher-ups. Occasionally, there would be a little more detailed research projects, and then obviously like the very lowly duties of being an intern, occasionally running mail, handling all of the managerial stuff of the office, things like that.
Brogan: So how many hours a day do you think you worked while you were there?
Woods: So my office was weird in that there would be days where it was very busy and days where, at least for being an intern, not very busy at all. So but on the average, I would say, I was maybe working anywhere from 9 to 10 or 11 hours a day.
Woods: Which is, again, not bad. Some of those days would just be I felt bad trying to leave early, and so I would be like, oh, I’ll stay until my supervisor stays, and I would stay and read a book for an hour or so. But that’s probably the typical day, I would say.
Brogan: Most of the White House people that we’ve talked to on this podcast tell us that they never really get to unplug. Did you? Were you expected to be looking at your email and such after you left the office?
Woods: No, so people like higher-ups are allowed to take their work home with them, whereas interns are not. But I would say that I started to understand. I would see something appear in the news, and then I would immediately try and think like, okay, how is this going to impact my day tomorrow? So it wasn’t necessarily that I couldn’t leave the office at the office, but the office just kind of expanded for me.
And so whenever there was some sort of tragedy that happened or some sort of event in the world of politics, I was like, oh, I know it. I’m wondering what the blogs are going to say tomorrow. I’m wondering what the polling will look like this in a week-and-a-half or so. So that was more of my experience as opposed to feeling like I needed to complete work outside of the office.
Brogan: Did you find yourself looking at the news or monitoring Twitter or what have you differently than you had before you started?
Woods: Yeah, so I started to care a lot more about data, which is the nerdiest response I could’ve given. But I didn’t really pay attention to any of the polling websites who are out there and how much that informs political discourse or whatever is happening out in the world. So I started paying attention to that a lot more closely, and I tried to diversify my sources a little bit. And so although I would be on Twitter, I was like, oh, I wonder—I’m a fairly liberal-leaning person, and so I follow a lot of Democratic congressmen and things like that.
So I was like, oh, you know what? I should probably see the other side of the discourse and try and understand that a little bit better. So that really expanded my view and made me try and think in a little bit more like holistic of a sense.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to former White House intern Chase Woods. In a minute, Woods tells us about the question he would’ve asked the president if only he’d had the opportunity.
What about just like taking care of the kind of ordinary banalities of life in the White House? Where did you eat while you were there? Did you leave the campus to get lunch, or did you eat in the cafeteria?
Woods: Yeah, so there’s like a small eatery within the EEOB called Ike’s Dining, which is like a quick, easy place to go if it’s a busy day. But oftentimes I would leave the campus because, God bless us, there was a Jimmy John’s right across the street. There was a Chopped, tons of places to eat around. So oftentimes what I found myself with an extra 15, 20 minutes or so. I would leave a little early, leave the campus, just cross the street, and grab a bite to eat.
Brogan: And there are all those food trucks at Farragut Square, too. Did you ever make it there?
Woods: No, I never made it to a food truck. Food trucks kind of stress me out because you have to stand on the sidewalk in the middle of other people walking. And so I always felt like, oh, no, I’m going to run into somebody, or I’m going to take too much time. It was just a stressful situation to look at those food trucks and see all those people.
Brogan: How free were you to wander around the actual campus of the White House? Did you have to go straight to and from your own office in the EOB, or was there any opportunity to explore?
Woods: If I was lucky enough to need to speak with a supervisor who was stationed in the White House, or like on my first and last day I got to take like a small tour. That was basically my main interaction with the White House itself. Most of the time, I kind of fell in that mentality of like, oh, I’m at work, and so I should be at work and just be where I need to be.
And so the White House, although it’s amazing, and I would love to spend as much time as possible in the actual structure of the White House, if I don’t have business there, I shouldn’t really think about going there or try and peruse. If the opportunity arose, again, if a supervisor asked like, oh, hey, do you want to take a quick tour, or can you meet me here to drop something off? Then, absolutely, I’m going to basically run there. But, otherwise, I was just trying to keep it all business.
Brogan: Do you feel like you were able to contribute to the work that the White House was doing during your time there?
Woods: So it’s an interesting question because, again, my office was interesting in that there were very slow days, and there were very fast days. So on the slow days, sometimes I would fall into the mentality of, oh, man, am I really contributing? Am I really doing anything? But then there would be days where things picked up, and I would be very encouraged like, oh, man, I’m stepping up.
And it took me a little while to realize that even on the slow days where I might just write a memo or something of that nature, that is a contribution no matter how small, because I don’t know the day that my supervisor is having or that the rest of the administration is having. So if I can contribute in any way to reduce the work of others, then that, in my mind, felt like a contribution. And so it was kind of a hurdle to get over that mentality of like, oh, no, I’m not contributing, and then fall into that mindset. But having left after the 10 weeks or so, I very much felt like I had the opportunity to contribute.
Brogan: Was there any moment when you really felt like an intern?
Woods: Yes, in a way of feeling incompetent, like a classic intern move. I forget what the assignment was, but—so there were two assignments actually. So two supervisors had asked me to do something separately, two totally different assignments. And I hadn’t realized that one of them was apparently very time-sensitive. And I was interested in the one that was not time-sensitive, and so I was like, oh, I’m going to do this one because this one’s cool.
And so I started doing it, and then I got an email from the supervisor to ask me about the time-sensitive assignment saying, hey, do you have that for me? And I frantically emailed them back and was like, oh, no. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that you needed it so quickly. I’ll do it right now. It’ll take me five minutes. And then I just got an email back saying, don’t worry. I’ll do it.
And so I felt terrible, and this was like at the very start of the day. And so for the next like 10 hours, I just kind of like shamefully hung my head at the desk like, oh, my God, I can’t believe I messed up like that. But I made it very clear that that was never going to happen again. And, thankfully, it didn’t. But that was probably the one moment where I felt like a small fish in a very big pond and kind of felt like at the bottom of the food chain.
Brogan: Do you think that you would want to stay in politics? Did this set of experiences affect your feelings along those lines at all?
Woods: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of the time when I told people I was going to D.C., they kind of like had a very negative perception of it and kind of had that negative perception of politics where it’s like, oh, politicians are crooked. No one’s really honest. It’s all about money and power and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.
But oddly enough, being there has kind of done the exact opposite for me just because I saw just how hard people actually are working and how hard people actually do care about the issues at hand. So that really reinforced that there are good people out there doing the work. And then a lot of the negativity that does surround politics, and although a lot of it is warranted, a lot of it is just perception.
And so to be able to be there, that’s kind of reinforced for me that politics is like a tool for good if used correctly, and I would want to use it correctly. And so I think that’s encouraged me to try and pursue politics in a really meaningful way.
Brogan: You were in a kind of uniquely powerless position in a very powerful place. Did it feel like the people around you, though, were powerful people, or did they just feel like people doing their jobs?
Woods: I would say, definitely the latter. People definitely just show up to do their jobs. And although I think people understand that they do have power and influence, it’s rather just to once again complete the mission of their work, if that makes sense. It doesn’t feel like power is misused or is just feeding people’s egos. It’s definitely a power that is used to advance the administration’s goals of helping and protecting the citizens of the country.
Brogan: You were, I assume, super excited, especially at first, to be at the White House. Did you have to like dial it down, pull it in, try to be a cool guy in order to not look like a total dork? I mean, I assume you are a very cool guy and would never look like a total dork.
Woods: No, I assure you it happens on a regular basis. Oh, god, I’m trying to think of like a particular instance. There was a day where Merrick Garland, the president’s appointee for the Supreme Court, he was walking just like through the EOB with somebody. And my mouth actually like was agape. And I was like, oh, it’s appropriate to wave. And so I waved, and it wasn’t really appropriate to wave, and he just kind of like looked at me. And I was like, hi there.
And I was like, oh, no, this is actually awkward. This is actually—he’s just trying to go about his day, and I’m acting like I’m meeting a movie star. I should probably never do this again. And so for the rest of my time there, whenever someone who was very important would walk by, I’d just try to keep my eyes straight and just kind of keep my head down. So I have a tendency to fan girl sometimes. So that was probably the moment.
And just to go back, Merrick Garland is a wonderful man. It’s not like a way of like he gave me a mean look. It was a look of just like, hi, I don’t know you. What’s happening? It was me. And then I realized like, oh, no, he’s just here for business. This is a place of business.
Brogan: Do you think there’s any level at which guys like Merrick Garland, though, just don’t really think of themselves as being celebrities, as being someone that anyone would be excited to see in the first place?
Woods: Yeah, I think that’s also probably a lot of it, especially because like they’re, again, just very serious people who care a lot about what they do. So I think when they expect to go to the EOB, they expect to be here for work-related reasons. And so just me as a dummy seeing him, that probably freaked him out a little bit. But, no, so I think a lot of times people in politics, unless you’re like a very, very, very high level, don’t necessarily care or carry like an air of celebrity to them, or at least they don’t think they do.
Brogan: Do you think that this experience of operating in the last few months of the administration seemed to shape the tone of the White House during your time there? Did you have any feeling of that kind of transitional quality of the current administration?
Woods: Yes and no. I would say that there’s definitely a feeling of a sense of urgency on the part of the administration because there is only a small chunk of time left to be doing as much good as possible, to try and get as much work done as possible. It definitely very much did not feel like a lame-duck presidency. People are definitely showing up every day with the idea in mind that, okay, I have one less day than I had the day before, so I need to try and do as much as possible. So it definitely didn’t necessarily feel transitional, although I know people obviously understand that the transition is right around the corner.
Brogan: What advice would you offer to someone who wants to work as an intern at the White House, whether in this administration or, since that’s probably not possible anymore, in whatever one might be coming down the pipe?
Woods: I feel like the internship program kind of shifts a little bit with whatever administration is in power. Granted, I can’t speak for an intern like in the Bush administration or anything like that. But I’ve heard that this administration has taken like a concentrated effort to make sure that there’s a lot of professional development going on, that there’s a lot of connect-building going on, and trying to really cultivate the young leaders that are there. And, again, that’s not to say that prior administrations haven’t done that. I think they’ve just tried to do it in a much more thoughtful way. So come November, it’s hard to say what my advice would be.
But I think some good general advice would just be to fly low and fly straight, not try and make your time there about shaking hands and getting coffees, but rather letting the quality of your work speak for you, so to be known as someone who might be known by a few people to do a really great job and to always get your work done and be on top of all of your stuff, as opposed to just knowing a lot of people and not necessarily being known for anything.
So I would say that’s some pretty true advice that could—well, I don’t want to say speak to any administration. Come November, that might not hold up for one of the cases. So I think that’s probably the advice I would give is just let the quality of your work speak for you.
Brogan: Did you actually have to fetch any coffee during your time at the White House?
Woods: I got a few coffees. I didn’t want to get the coffee with people who were, quote unquote, like big names. I didn’t want to get coffee with someone for the sake of getting coffee. I really wanted to try and talk to people with whom I had very similar interests or potentially had a similar career path that I might want to try and embark on. So there were a few coffees, but I hope they were good, meaningful coffees that people would step away from and be like, oh, that kid’s all right.
Brogan: What about fetching coffee, though? Did you ever have to do that?
Woods: Oh. Oh, oh, I’m so sorry. Is that what you asked?
Brogan: Yeah, it’s fine. And I like your answer, too, which is great.
Woods: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
Brogan: No, don’t worry.
Woods: I never had to fetch coffee. Thank goodness. Thank goodness I never had to fetch coffee. I would’ve happily fetched coffee if—
Brogan: If they’d asked, you mean?
Woods: Yeah, if someone had pointed at me just like, hey, kid, cup of coffee, no cream and sugar, I’d be like, absolutely. But, no, thank goodness.
Brogan: Was there anyone who you actually met, spent time, too, talked with that really blew your mind, the kind of person that you would’ve never thought you would’ve met otherwise?
Woods: So I got to occasionally sit down with the director of my office, David Simas. He’s like a relentlessly optimistic person. And so I think, again, to get back to that weird D.C. culture of it’s all corrupt, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, meeting him as a person who there is not an ounce of that or any ounce of like the idea of corruption or just wanting to do this for the sake of power/prestige, that was really refreshing and something that was very encouraging to kind of have him as like a distant role model of like potentially like why I would want to be in politics.
Brogan: You never had the opportunity to actually meet or talk to the president, though, during your time there?
Woods: So they do schedule one meeting with him, like an intern photo op and an opportunity to talk to him and ask him a few questions. And it’s actually so funny you’re saying this, because the president’s time is obviously very precious, and so they only take a few questions. And so I was really hoping to ask him mine but did not get the opportunity.
Brogan: So what question would you ask him if you could?
Woods: So this question is going to sound crazy pretentious. It’s not meant to. So I would’ve asked essentially like, what would he do if he wrote another book in a vein of other authors? So the question is, in your first book, Dreams From my Father, it felt like you were trying to understand the world you’re inheriting. And two of my favorite books, The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me, are letters to people, letters to family members more specifically, about the world they’re inheriting.
So if you were to write a letter or a book in the vein of these two authors to someone younger about the world they’re inheriting, what would you write? And so that was my question. And it, unfortunately, did not get to be asked.
Brogan: Hopefully, he’ll listen to this and answer it.
Woods: What I would give. What I would give, man, but, yeah.
Brogan: If you could pass one other message on to him after your time at the White House, what would it be?
Woods: I mean, I’m sure he hears it all the time, and I’m sure he probably does have a great understanding of it because he’s met countless people across the country, but just thanking him for what he’s done, and not on like a policy level, but just on a profound level of like I didn’t think I could be president. I mean, I don’t think I could be president now.
But it’s interesting to like look at him and think of what’s possible and to think about what he’s done for me on a very personal level, again, which wasn’t his intent. He very much wanted to lead the country in very like real, tangible, meaningful ways. But when I first saw him in person, when he walked in that room, it really, really, really hit me about what he’s been able to do for me on a personal level. So I would definitely just thank him for that.
Brogan: That’s great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Woods: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Brogan: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we actually do read all of the emails that you send us, so please send them. You can listen to all seven seasons of Working at Slate.com/working.
This series was produced by me and Mickey Capper. Mickey also edits the show. Thanks to Efim Shapiro. And special thanks to Ian Philbrick and Summer Fields, who helped bring this episode together. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. And the chief content officer of the Panoply Network is Andy Bowers.
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In this Slate Plus extra, Chase Woods chats with former Slate intern Ian Philbrick about what it’s like to intern in Washington, D.C.
Ian Philbrick: Hello, Chase. How’s it going?
Woods: Good. How are you?
Philbrick: I’m doing well. I’m doing well. Are you a senior? Is this going to be your last year there?
Woods: It is. It is. So if anyone is out there looking to hire people, I would really like health insurance.
Woods: A place to live, things like that.
Philbrick: The bare necessities, right?
Philbrick: I’m going to put in a plug for myself there, too. I’m in the same boat. So fingers crossed for both of us here.
Woods: Yeah, knock on wood.
Philbrick: Yeah, right. Yeah, but I wondered if we could talk a little bit about basically what it was like to be an intern in D.C., as you were this past summer, and as I was as well, you at the White House and me a couple blocks away at Slate.
Woods: Oh, what?
Philbrick: Yeah, so it’s weird for me to be back in the office. But I was wondering sort of what—I also go to school around this area. I feel like sort of a transplant that’s starting to put down roots. And I’m wondering, when you moved to D.C., was it just for this internship, and had you ever been before?
Woods: Yeah, so it was just for the internship, and I’ve actually been before, but I was like eight years old. And so I was obviously a much different person when I was eight. I was not really aware of the world around me. I drank a lot less. So I was experiencing the city in a very different way. But it was wonderful. D.C. is a really great place. It was weird to walk around and like feel the history around me, if you know what I mean.
Like walking down Chicago, although it’s like a great, wonderful city, you can’t point to this spot and to a spot on the street and be like, oh, this is where a famous battle took place, or this is where such-and-such president or statesman would walk by every day. So, no, it was very much a different experience from where I’ve been before, but it was a great one.
Philbrick: Yeah, we’re definitely a pretty sort of marble-studded city in terms of all the monuments, and then you got the Smithsonian. You’ve got those sort of great National Mall grass-scapes. What was your favorite thing that you did that was sort of outside the internship that sort of evoked that history that you were talking about?
Woods: So this is a little unique just in my school. So at U Chicago we have our Institute of Politics. And they have a summer program, a summer in Washington program. So they try and coordinate a lot of like extracurricular activities for us. And so I had the opportunity to actually visit the Supreme Court and talk to an alum who is now clerking there for one of the justices.
And that was probably the best thing I did, at least in that capacity of the Institute of Politics, just because I think everyone kind of talks about like the law as this really weird abstract thing. And so that kind of like made it much more of like an institution for me, so that was really cool. I also went to a Nationals game, which was dope.
Philbrick: Did they win?
Woods: They did win. They were playing the Pirates. It was a pretty good time. I bought a $13.00 beer, so that was dope.
Philbrick: Yeah, that sounds about right.
Woods: And I’m not a big sports fan, and so to see anyone who’s like great in their sport is always fun. So seeing Bryce Harper was really, really cool.
Philbrick: That’s great, that’s great. What was your sort of living arrangement? Where were you located, and what was your roommate situation basically?
Woods: So I was at American University. They have a summer housing program just because D.C. attracts a lot of interns in the summer, a lot of people who obviously can’t afford like the D.C. housing market and will need a place to stay. That’s actually one thing I didn’t like about D.C. It is ungodly expensive.
But so I was staying there with three other guys in basically like an apartment suite, who all had various internships throughout the city. One of them was at the Department of Homeland Security which, interesting fact, is actually like right across the street from American. So he would just walk like the 20 feet to work every day. Another was at, I believe, a consulting firm. And then another was on the Hill for his local congressman, which was pretty interesting just because they were all guys who were very different from myself.
They were all from the South. I’m from Illinois. So it was interesting to talk to them about like what was going on in the world and like their experience in their internships just coming from like the other side of the country. And American’s great. It’s also a beautiful campus. They provide transportation to and fro the local Red Line station, so that was great. And, yeah, so that was where I was staying.
Philbrick: Yeah, that’s really cool. I spent some time at the beginning of the summer in AU housing as well, so I’m familiar.
Woods: Oh, what? Wait. What?
Philbrick: Yeah, it’s a pretty campus. We might have overlapped.
Woods: What dorm were you in?
Philbrick: So I was in Cassel, I think is how you pronounce it. Yeah, I’m told it’s the newest and best one. You can dispute that if you want.
Woods: No, no, no. I mean, I have actually never stepped foot in another dorm besides Nebraska, so I wouldn’t be able to say. I guess for everyone who lives in Nebraska Hall and who might be listening, I’m sorry I didn’t defend your honor.
Philbrick: I was going to say, I should retract. I’m not a partisan about dorms either. So, yeah, I’m going to throttle back on that. But it was interesting what you were saying about living with guys that were doing different things or came from different places, because it really seems like the population of young people spikes in the city, and particularly young people that are not from this area necessarily aren’t necessarily exposed to these sorts of internship opportunities back where they go to school.
And as somebody who goes to school in the city, that’s a really cool thing to see is sort of this gestation of different parts of the country and different intern experiences. Did you make time to get around and meet other interns, either through the White House or that were in other departments?
Were you able to have that sort of exchange?
Woods: So actually, the White House internship program is amazing in that they really try and create like a cohort of interns and make sure that people are meeting, exchanging ideas, and really trying to make connections that are going to last outside of the White House for years to come. So, actually, I met a lot of people from—and that’s another thing I should say is that the program attracts people from all walks of life, from all across the country. So I was like meeting people from New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Montana, Minnesota, Florida, basically one person from almost every state. I can’t guarantee that, but it felt like it at times.
So definitely was trying to meet people, but the internship program definitely helped facilitate that, and a lot of great people, lot of great people.
Philbrick: That’s awesome. And you were mentioning that D.C. is sort of notoriously expensive. I would bike to work every day, and I would sort of frequently avail myself of the free snacks that Slate made available in the office. I’m curious if you have any tips and tricks that you either employed, went in with or came to learn, over the summer for living in D.C. as an intern sort of on the cheap.
Woods: Oh, man. So I learned how to be my mom’s best friend.
Philbrick: That’s a good skill to have.
Woods: Was definitely maybe sending an extra text or two that I usually don’t send throughout like the school year or anything. But, man, I—boy, that’s tough. I tried to find—well, so I take advantage of everything that is free or anything that is subsidized. The internship, thankfully, provides like a small transportation stipend, so taking advantage of that was really big, and trying to utilize transportation to bring me to like cheaper places, if that makes sense.
So on American University’s campus, or not their campus, but the closest grocery store was a Whole Foods. And although I like eating healthy as much as the next guy, being in an unpaid internship wasn’t like the most financially like solvent idea to shop there. So trying to take a bus to cheaper locations, something that fit my budget a little bit better, trying to link up with my friends, and if they were like, oh, I have some extra food, or I’m going out, or, oh, I’m going to order a pizza, do you want something?
Trying to take advantage of things like that when they popped up, doo-doo-doo. And anytime there is free food at the office is big. So if there’s like a birthday party, obviously say happy birthday to whoever’s there, but maybe grab a slice of cake or a soda or whatever.
Woods: Those are probably the big tips that I learned. But saying hello to mom every once in a while and being like, oh, yeah, I’m so hungry today, blah-blah-blah, that’s also pretty high up there.
Philbrick: I’d say, saying hello to mom is never a bad idea, right?
Woods: True, true.
Philbrick: That’s really cool. It seems like the nature of being an intern is to be sort of an itinerant, right? We come in for a span of a few months. We work there. We leave. And then we inevitably get replaced. But that experience sort of goes with us. So I’m curious what you think you’re going to take from your internship experience back to campus or even beyond that. How will the work you did at the White House sort of inform the rest of your undergraduate career or where you want to end up? And do you see yourself ending up in D.C. after graduation?
Woods: Sure. So, I’ll say, two very big things that I’ve taken away, the first being—and this will sound a little cheesy, but like having a sense of patriotism. I think I’m like a twentysomething on a college campus, and I’m sitting in class all day. And I’m reading like foreign thinkers and people who often criticize the country, and it’s easy for me to sit down and be like, oh, yeah, America, blah-blah-blah, we’re not that great, whatever. Actually, have you ever seen—what’s that show on HBO? The Newsroom with Jeff Daniels.
Philbrick: I have, yeah. I find it a little treacly honestly. But it’s got some good moments, yeah.
Woods: Absolutely. Like that opening scene of the first episode where the—I feel like sometimes that’s like the mentality I kind of got trapped in.
And it’s sort of like a faux intellectualism of sorts. So going there and then actually seeing the work that was being done, seeing how much people cared, and actually had like a genuine commitment to public service, that was something that I think kind of like turned that negative attitude around and really made me think like, oh, wow, although America at times certainly makes mistakes, my criticism doesn’t have to come from a place of contempt. It can really come from a place of love and actual affection for the country. So that was one.
What was the second thing? Oh, the second thing, probably the importance of personal relationships. And, again, this is kind of reinforced by the internship program and how much they wanted us to interact with one another, work on projects together and try and, again, create like lasting relationships. That has probably propelled me to really think about like how I operate in spaces and make friends, make acquaintances.
And I hate networking. And this isn’t meant to be like a pro networking speech, but it’s more so like a pro like, hey, make friendships speech. It’s something that will sustain you in not only your work, but also your personal life. So I think that’s probably something that I’m taking away.
I think I’m definitely going to try and go back to D.C. in some capacity. Working at the White House again would be amazing. That is something that I would like basically die for. So I think going back at some point, maybe not right after graduation, but some point down the line definitely going to try and go back.
Philbrick: That’s awesome. Yeah, so I lied. I have one more quick question.
Woods: Oh, it’s all good.
Philbrick: So you worked in the White House on sort of the political temperature of the country. And it seems like that temperature is—it seems like America is sort of running a fever towards D.C., towards Congress, this city in general. So I’m curious what it was like to sort of be in the vipers’ den. Did you sense sort of a malaise in this town? Is Washington really—as somebody who goes to school outside, was your perception that Washington really sort of is out of touch or is broken or just sort of as dysfunctional as much of America seems to think it is?
Woods: So it’s weird. So, I’ll say, I definitely felt the D.C. bubble. That was something that everyone kind of told me when I was first going. And like the people who actually live there, they said it’s very easy to kind of get entrenched and thinking that like D.C. is like the most important thing. What’s happening here is kind of like the focal point of the country. So I definitely felt that at times.
Whether or not it’s broken—see, it’s weird. So I, myself, come from the Midwest, and it’s something that I hear a lot, but it’s not necessarily something that’s personally resonated with me, probably because I personally identify with Barack Obama as a young black man who wants to be in public service. I went to D.C. and had a great experience. So I think it’s hard for me to try and say whether or not it’s broken just because D.C. and the idea of D.C. has been good for me and something I’ve been attracted to.
But I can totally understand why people would think it is and why people would maintain that it is just because that bubble mentality can kind of be hard to break and kind of be hard to escape from when you’re actually there.
Philbrick: Sure, sure. Thanks so much. This was really cool, Chase.