Captain in the White House

CNU alumna serves in high-profile public service internship

For most who work in the White House, it is the crowning achievement of a long career in elected office, business or public service. Emily Whitby (’13) is among the relative few who can say her career began in the executive mansion.

Whitby, who graduated from CNU last May with a bachelor of science in psychology, was chosen as a fall 2013 White House intern, a highly selective program that aims to introduce young leaders to the executive branch and careers in public service. These high-achievers have demonstrated leadership in the community and a passion for serving the greater good. The interns work in a variety of White House departments, on a wide array of tasks, such as research, writing, and meetings and events. One such assignment includes the Office of the First Lady, which is where you’ll find Whitby.

Definitely not a coffee-and-photocopy internship, Whitby’s primary duty is to read and respond to the weekly avalanche of correspondence sent to Michelle Obama, by everyone from elected officials and foreign dignitaries to ordinary citizens. “Correspondence is the only opportunity most Americans have to communicate and interact with the first family, so it is truly an honor for me to serve as a liaison between [them] and the American people,” says Whitby. “I have always been a huge supporter of the Obama administration, but I never had the opportunity to take time off school and work on the campaign. This internship [has] provided the perfect opportunity to support the administration.” Whitby is also a liaison between Mrs. Obama’s correspondence office and other White House departments, such as scheduling, casework, policy and social, all of which must work in concert amid the intense activity of the White House to ensure projects and events are executed smoothly.

Her position also enables her to attend regular lunches with senior White House staff – a rare networking and personal development opportunity – where discussions cover everything from politics to personal stories. “What has been most insightful to learn is that there is no set path to the White House; every staffer has such a unique and interesting background,” Whitby says.

In order to be chosen for the program, Whitby had to complete a rigorous application process where she had to elucidate her commitment to public service as well as draft a mock policy memorandum. For the former she chronicled a shoe drive she helped organize at CNU with the Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) and the Got Sole Project, a Hampton Roads nonprofit organization that collects shoe donations and distributes them to underprivileged families throughout coastal Virginia. SAAC, which Whitby co-captained as a member of CNU’s cross-country team, represents student-athletes on campus and in the NCAA and coordinates a host of activities, meetings and community service efforts.

She then wrote about how food is marketed to children, which also formed the basis of her psychology senior seminar paper. Whitby worked with Dr. Thomas Berry, Associate Professor of Psychology, throughout her CNU career, both in the classroom and in his applied psychology labs, where she was as an undergraduate research assistant. “Dr. Berry challenged and encouraged me, [and] I can't imagine I would be in the position that I am in now without his continuous help,” she says.

Under Berry’s mentorship Whitby researched and wrote about childhood obesity and government policy regarding healthy eating and anti-tobacco campaigns. She presented findings from her work at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of Undergraduate Scholarship and CNU’s annual Paideia undergraduate research conference. Her interest in these subjects is ongoing, and likely instrumental in her admission to the White House internship program, as Mrs. Obama is well known for her advocacy of healthy diet and exercise, particularly in children. “Emily is a bright person, motivated, well meaning, with a desire to better the health and lives of children,” says Berry. “I am so happy she has found a great start to her career, and a significant opportunity to make a contribution to society. In my opinion, Emily represents the fulfillment and hope that a CNU education provides students who have ambition and a goal.”

Whitby’s other signature experience at Christopher Newport came on the cross-country course, where she was co-captain and an academic all-conference runner. She credits Head Coach Tyler Wingard’s high expectations and goal-setting exercises as instrumental to her success, both at CNU, and as she begins her career. “At the time the process felt a little painful, [but] I am now grateful for the ability to set goals as well as plan out a method to achieve these goals,” she says. “I don’t have concrete goals like breaking a certain time or achieving all-conference honors like I did as a student-athlete, but I have broad goals related to nutrition and food security that I am pursuing. I can honestly say that being a student-athlete is what prepared me most for life after college.”

Wingard says the process helps student-athletes understand their role on the team, evaluate and develop their strengths and weaknesses. “We’re not interested in them just training hard and performing well; we expect them to do that and be outstanding students and family members and outstanding members of other groups and activities they’re involved with, which is a pretty tall order. Wingard says athletes develop a special mental acuity through intense competition that serves them both on and off the field of play. “When they get to that sticking point where it feels like they’re being pushed beyond what they can do, there’s a willingness to battle through it because they really want what’s on the other side, whether it’s in the classroom or in life,” he says. “I hope that’s something that, at least in small part, we’re helping our student-athletes learn.”

Whitby was also active on campus as a member of the President’s Leadership and Honors Programs, where she had the opportunity to study abroad at Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford. She says her coursework there not only greatly improved her writing and ability to formulate her thoughts and opinions, but also piqued her intellectual curiosity and helped her to mature and learn valuable leadership lessons. “It was one of the most incredible experiences,” she says. “I cannot overemphasize how much the unique opportunities I had at CNU helped me to succeed.”

Now that her White House experience has ended, Whitby is considering her options, whether a return to academia to pursue a PhD in behavioral psychology, or launching a career in public service. “Throughout my life I have been so blessed; I want to pass along my good fortune to others. I have loved interning for the federal government, so it is definitely something I can see myself continuing to pursue. I am especially passionate about public health so I hope to have a career in that realm.”

Whichever path she chooses, her executive branch experience – and the wealth of experience she has earned – should certainly help clear the way.