Before attending California State University, Dominguez Hills, Andrea Smith never imagined she would someday land an internship at the White House in Washington, D.C. But in May, the alumna (Class of ’08, B.A., psychology; Class of ’12, Master of Public Administration), completed a five-month internship in arguably one of the most sought-after programs for aspiring politicos—the White House Internship Program.
“I would never have thought this was even possible for someone who grew up in South Los Angeles,” the native Angelino said. “It’s given me so much confidence in my ability. … It’s made me realize that I can honestly do anything, I can be anything.”
Assigned to the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence, along with another intern and two associates, Smith assisted in the Greetings Department, responding to the many greeting requests that the President of the United States receives from constituents.
“I gained a great deal of knowledge while I was there. Working alongside such smart, driven, and intelligent people was so fulfilling. More specifically, I’ve gained an inside look into our political system and how the federal government and executive branch operates,” Smith said.
She applied for the internship at the urging of Eileen Hall, her former M.P.A. advisor at CSU Dominguez Hills, who provided details about the application process and other information pertaining to the program. Smith learned of her acceptance in December and started the internship in January.
“I’m not sure if anything can fully prepare you for an internship at the White House. My education at CSUDH, however, played a huge role in my success in the program,” Smith asserted. “The M.P.A. (Master of Public Administration) program’s curriculum was centered around real casework and exposed me to the reality of the government sector.”
Additionally, Smith credits her professors at CSU Dominguez Hills, especially emeritus professor of psychology Lisa Gray-Shellberg for teaching her to be diligent about her studies and for advocating post-secondary education, and professor of criminal justice Gus Martin for sparking her interest in foreign policy.
“I learned so much in class, much more than I ever anticipated,” she said.
But it was a popular television talk show that initially planted the seed for someday interning at the White House.
“To be honest, it all started with an episode of Oprah! Valerie Jarrett (a senior advisor to President Barack Obama) was a guest on her show,’” the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member recalled. “She spoke of her path to the White House and the Obama Administration, and I just kept thinking, ‘Wow…that’s what I want to do, that’s who I want to be.’ I was truly inspired by her words and her drive to succeed as an African American woman in the government sector.”
While still a student at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, Smith made good grades, but college proved to be more of a challenge than she had anticipated.
“I did so well in high school, that I wasn’t prepared for how challenging college would actually be. That definitely was a wake up call, because I’d always had been at the top of my class,” Smith remembered. “I realized I needed to start pushing myself more.”
With increased efforts, the Educational Opportunity Program participant began to hit high marks once again and she went on to earn not only a bachelor’s but also a master’s degree from the university.
It was President Obama’s accomplishments during his first term that influenced Smith’s area of study for her graduate degree at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“The Obama Administration made it possible for me to obtain health insurance even though I had a pre-existing condition. President Obama’s desire and passion for helping people inspired me, so I decided to get my master’s degree in public administration because I wanted to be in the field of service, just like him,” said Smith, who minored in sociology as an undergraduate.
The academic achievement was a significant accomplishment for the university graduate. Her late father, who was born in a rural, segregated town in Louisiana, as well as her mother, a native of Ghana, West Africa, were from humble origins yet supported Smith’s high academic and career goals.
“They inspired me to do better, to be better. They instilled in me the importance of education for as long as I can remember,” the former Toro said. “My mother and brothers constantly praise my achievements and express their pride in my educational accomplishments, as well as my becoming a White House Intern.”
Through the internship program, Smith had opportunities to meet several senior-level staff, who shared details of their journeys to the White House. She even met President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as the person who initially influenced her decision to seek a career in politics.
“I was fortunate enough to have been selected to introduce my role model, Valerie Jarrett, at an intern speaker series. She was so gracious and so kind. Meeting her was like coming full circle for me,” Smith recalled.
Smith has since returned to her job as a literacy development coordinator for New Designs Charter School in Los Angeles. However, she was so affected by what she experienced in the U.S. capital, that she is setting her career sights on one day working in the White House Office of Public Engagement or taking a behind-the-scenes support role in local or state government. Regardless of the direction Smith chooses, she is poised for success.
“I’ve gained so much knowledge and awareness from this internship. I’m using every bit of it to further my career in public service,” the former White House Intern attested. “The internship has increased my drive for wanting to make a difference in the lives of the nation’s people … particularly for those who are underprivileged.”
For more information about the White House Internship Program, visit www.whitehouse.gov/internships.